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Australia says would bar move of BHP Billiton offshore

FILE PHOTO: A promotional sign adorns a stage at a BHP Billiton function in Sydney, Australia, August 20, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia warned on Thursday that a push by activist investor Elliott Management to ditch global miner BHP Billiton's (BLT.L) dual listing may be a criminal offence and could be subject to civil penalties.

Elliott, led by U.S. financier Paul Singer, wants BHP to spin off its U.S. oil assets, scrap dual listings in London and Sydney to consolidate them in the UK, and hand back more money to shareholders.

BHP Billiton has vehemently resisted the effort and Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison backed up Australia's biggest company on Thursday.

"It is unthinkable that any Australian government could allow this original Big Australian to head offshore," Morrison said in a statement.

Morrison confirmed that BHP Billiton is required to remain listed on the Australian Securities Exchange under the terms of the government's approval of the merger of BHP and Billiton in 2001.

He warned that scrapping the Australian listing would be a criminal offence and that BHP Billiton could face civil penalties under the country's foreign takeovers law if it were to carry out Elliott's proposal.

The Treasurer could also block a takeover of BHP's Australian assets by a London-listed company, he said.

Elliott has sent representatives to Australia this week to canvas BHP Billiton shareholders over the proposals. The activist investor on Thursday declined requests from Reuters to meet with those representatives.

BHP Billiton is a top holding for most Australian fund managers, given it is the country's second-largest company by market capitalisation, and the largest Australian company when its UK-listed shares are included.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin)