Rio de Janeiro :  Brazil's antitrust regulator, known as Cade, fined five industrial gas companies 2.94 billion reais ($1.68 billion) for engaging in cartel-like activities, with Praxair Inc of the US getting most of the penalty.

White Martins SA, a unit of Danbury, Connecticut-based Praxair, was fined 2.22 billion reais, Cade announced yesterday during a session in Brasilia.

The fine was doubled because the company is a repeat offender of antitrust laws, the regulator said. Lawyers representing the fined companies, who were attending the session, said they planned to appeal the decision.

"Praxair strongly believes that the allegations of anticompetitive activity against our Brazilian subsidiary are not supported by valid and sufficient evidence," Susan Szita Gore, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail statement.

"We further believe that the fine represents a gross and arbitrary disregard of Brazilian law."

Air Liquide SA, the world's biggest producer of industrial gases, based in Paris, was fined 249.25 million reais, and Aga AB, a unit of Munich-based Linde AG, was fined 237.68 million reais. Air Products & Chemicals Inc., based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was fined 226.09 million reais, and IBG-Industria Brasileira de Gases Ltda., based in Jundiai, Brazil, got a fine of 8.46 million reais.

Raffling off clients

"Air Products intends to appeal the decision and believes it has strong grounds for a favourable outcome," Betsy Klebe, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail statement.

The companies fixed prices, shared markets and held raffles when more than one of them wanted a client, among other anticompetitive actions, said Fernando de Magalhaes Furlan, who led proceedings at the antitrust body. Other industrial-gas companies, as well as hospitals and patients, were harmed by the cartel, he said.

"The industrial and medical gases cartel is very sophisticated and well-organised," Furlan said.

"The companies completely dominated the market." The fines reflect violations since 2004, although there are signs the cartel may date to 1998, he said. The fine is the largest ever levied by Brazil's antitrust body.

Brazil also fined seven people for taking part in the cartel, Furlan said.