NEW YORK - Five black fire safety directors of West Indian descent sued Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch unit on Friday, accusing it of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, leading to their 2005 firings.

In a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, the men said they worked for six to 17 years at Merrill's headquarters at the World Financial Center in New York, under contract with American Building Maintenance Inc but ultimately under Merrill's supervision and control. ABM is also a defendant.

The men said that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Merrill employees made derogatory comments about their Caribbean accents, though they were native English speakers, and ordered them to attend an English for Professionals Pronunciation Workshop at nearby Pace University. They said Merrill also reassigned their duties with the intent of humiliating them.

According to the complaint, while Merrill and ABM purported to fire the men because they could not perform their jobs, they were actually fired because of their skin color and because they spoke with accents that pegged them as 'foreign.'

Bank of America, which bought Merrill on Jan. 1, and ABM were not immediately available for comment.

The plaintiffs are seeking their old jobs back, compensatory and punitive damages, and other remedies. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.

The case is Carr v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan), No. 09-7825. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel, editing by Dave Zimmerman)