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Aid groups urge Australia to speed up Timor gas talks

Associated Press - April 16, 2004

Sydney – A coalition of church and aid groups on Friday called for Australia to grant East Timor concessions in a border dispute over the resource-rich Timor Sea as the countries prepare for talks in Dili Monday.

The groups – including the Catholic and Uniting Churches, Community Aid Abroad, Oxfam and the Australia-East Timor Association – accused Canberra of stalling the talks, which are aimed at fixing a maritime border between Australia and East Timor.

East Timor wants officials to meet monthly to ensure a speedy resolution but Australia, which receives the lion's share of proceeds from Timor Sea reserves under an interim revenue-sharing deal, has said it will meet only twice a year.

"Negotiations, which should only take a couple of years, will instead only be finished when our grandchildren are heading for retirement and the oil and gas field under Australia's control have dried up," said Marc Purcell, from the Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace.

East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has said Dili is unlikely to ratify the interim deal, known as the International Unitisation Agreement (IUA), because it gives East Timor only 18 percent of revenues while handing Canberra 82 percent.

East Timor regards the Timor Sea revenue as a lifeline that can end the nation's dependence on international aid.

Australia wants to keep the maritime border agreed with Jakarta after Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, which would give it the lion's share of the reserves.

But Dili argues that Jakarta only agreed to that deal in exchange for Canberra's recognition of its illegal annexation of East Timor and the border should lie at the mid-point between the two countries, in line with standard international practice.

In March 2002, Australia withdrew from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea before the dispute reached the arbiter.

The coalition called for Australia to resubmit to the international tribunal to dispell the impression that it is bullying its impoverished neighbour.

"If the Australian government drags out negotiations it will get an estimated eight billion US dollars worth of revenue from the oil and gas deposits under dispute, while East Timor will only get four billion US dollars," it said in a statement.