Greek leaders launch bid to break political deadlock

Amid dire warnings that Athens is fast running out of time to implement a crucial EU bailout plan designed to save Greece from bankruptcy, Prime Minister George Papandreou has offered to step down in favour of a coalition government.

But Antonis Samaras, leader of the main conservative opposition party, has snubbed the proposal, calling instead for "immediate" elections.

Papandreou in turn has dismissed the idea of early polls as a "catastrophe" and said the bickering was giving the rest of Europe the impression that Greece did not want to stay in the 17-nation eurozone.

"The application of this deal is the precondition for us staying in the euro. It's as important as that," he told reporters yesterday after visiting President Carolos Papoulias.

Papandreou was referring to a rescue package thrashed out in late October after tortuous negotiations in Brussels that would see banks write off half their holdings of Greek debt and offer massive loans to keep the country afloat.

Opposition leader Samaras was due to hold talks with the head of state Papoulias at 1 pm (1630 IST) before Papandreou convenes an emergency cabinet meeting five hours later.

The cabinet meeting was due to prepare a meeting of eurozone finance ministers tomorrow that would debate an eight-billion-euro (USD 11-billion) slice of bailout cash that Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos says is needed by December 15.

And ratcheting up the pressure on politicians to put aside their differences, a government spokesman announced late last night that Athens had only seven weeks to put the terms of the EU rescue package in place.

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