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The Age, 1st February , 2005.

Canberra hits Timor ads

An advertising campaign accusing the Prime Minister of stealing billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues from East Timor has been branded "deceptive and misleading" by the Government.

The Government has gone on the defensive as it attempts to resume stalled talks over disputed maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea.

The television ads, paid for by Ian Melrose, the owner of Australia's second-largest optical chain, claim Australia has "stolen" $2 billion in revenue from the Timorese.

The Melbourne businessman is running a campaign to embarrass John Howard over Australia's claim on the lucrative oil and gas fields.

However, Mr Melrose's ads have cost him the support of a coalition of groups, with Oxfam, World Vision and the Uniting Church moving to distance themselves from him.

Earlier this week Mr Melrose and the Timor Sea Justice Campaign said the groups were part of a "coalition" that supported his pledge to ambush Mr Howard at public events.

Oxfam advocacy manager Marc Purcell said: "It's a matter of employing different methods of trying to achieve a just outcome for the Timorese. That involves talking to Government ministers . . . it's unhelpful to be associated with a campaign targeting the Prime Minister."

A World Vision spokesman said: "An ad campaign such as this is not a strategy we would use to influence government. We don't endorse it."

The Uniting Church said: "We welcome community action but we don't support any personal attacks."

The Government's reaction to Mr Melrose's ad was swift. One official involved in negotiations over East Timor's maritime boundary said the figure of $2 billion was incorrect. He said Australia had received $15 million at most from the joint petroleum area.

"That's where his campaign is deceptive and misleading," said the official, who asked not to be named. "He's including things East Timor has never had a right to."

A spokesman for Mr Melrose said: "If the Australian Government is so sure of its legal case, why doesn't it simply take it to the International Court of Justice and settle it once and for all?"

The Government has not received any response from East Timor to its invitation to attend a third round of talks in Australia in February or March.

By Julian Lee and Cynthia Banham