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A jury on Thursday rejected claims that the Alabama-based Drummond coal company was to blame for the killing of three union leaders in Colombia, a defeat for labor in a test of whether companies can be held responsible in U.S. courts for their conduct overseas.

Jurors sided with Drummond Ltd. and the head of its Colombian operations, Augusto Jimenez, in ruling against a lawsuit filed by relatives and the union of the dead men, who were killed by paramilitary gunmen six years ago.

The jury of five men and five women heard two weeks of testimony in the lawsuit against Drummond Ltd. and Jiminez. Relatives of the dead men and their union accused Drummond of arranging the killing of the labor leaders by paramilitary forces in Colombia in 2001.

The company denied any involvement with the slayings or with militia forces in the South American nation, where it operates a huge surface mine.

Lawyers in the case and outside experts said the suit was the first to go to trial against a U.S. corporation under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law passed to fight piracy that lets foreigners sue in federal court for alleged wrongdoing overseas.

"We will be appealing swiftly," said plaintiffs' attorney Terry Collingsworth.

Jimenez wiped away tears after the verdict. He declined to comment, but a company statement said the verdict was "a long time coming."

In Colombia, Stevenson Avila, local president of the union representing Drummond workers, said the ruling is likely to embolden paramilitary assassins.

"Our biggest fear right now is that union members will be left vulnerable to assassination," he said. "Near the mine, paramilitary groups are already rearming, and with this ruling I'm sure the attack against us will be head-on."