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Rights group denounces Australia over Timor oil

A US-based rights group denounced Australia yesterday, saying Canberra should be "ashamed" for allegedly robbing East Timor of much-needed oil and gas revenues from the disputed seabed between the two nations.

Australia has been accused of pressuring East Timor into signing a temporary agreement that favors Canberra when it comes to divvying up oil fields in the Timor Sea.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is visiting Washington this week.

East Timor leaders, desperate for any oil revenue, say they signed the deal believing it soon would be superceded once the two countries agree on their disputed maritime border. They now accuse Australia of dragging out the border negotiations.

In March, Australia ratified legislation giving it a majority stake in Greater Sunrise oil fields pending a new border agreement to replace the one it concluded with Indonesia's former dictator Suharto, who invaded East Timor in 1975 and ruled it with an iron fist for 24 years.

"Australia should be ashamed to continue to profit from this," said John Miller from the New York-based East Timor Action Network in a statement received yesterday.

Howard's policies "betray Australians' sense of fair play and legality when he justifies today's continuing occupation [of the oil fields] by citing Australian complicity with Indonesia's brutal invasion," Miller said. He urged Canberra to resolve the matter "quickly and legally."

In March, a group of US con-gressmen wrote to Howard urging him to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary and an equitable sharing of the resources in the disputed oil field.

East Timor's legislators have yet to ratify the new agreement, complaining that their country was pressured into accepting the current temporary agreement that gives it only 18 percent of an expected US$30 billion in gas and oil revenues. They have also slammed Canberra for issuing exploration licenses in the disputed area.

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