By Jonathan Davies

A British oil company has been accused of making payments worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to senior civil servants in Somalia.

A report by the UN claims that payments made by Soma Oil & Gas amount to "acts that undermine Somali public institutions through corruption".

The UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has now launched its own investigation into the allegations, which are wholly denied by Soma Oil & Gas, which is chaired by former Conservative party leader Michael Howard.

It is claimed that nearly $500,000 worth of payments to the Somali Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, beginning in June 2014, were part of a "capacity building programme". The programme was intended to cover the salaries of experts, including geologists and geoscientists.

But the UN report claims the programme was used to "fund systematic payoffs to senior ministerial officials" some of whom were "instrumental in both securing the company's initial contract, and negotiating subsequent agreements".

In a statement, Soma Oil & Gas said: "No person involved in the capacity building agreement programme was, or is, in a position to influence the decision to grant any commercial agreements for the benefit of Soma."

It added: "Soma has always conducted its business in a completely lawful and ethical manner."