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Greek govt talks on state TV closure collapse

Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos, Associated Press

Antonis Samaras, Prime Minister of Greece arrives for a meeting of leaders of the European People's Party (EPP) in Vienna, Austria on Thursday, June 20, 2013. On the agenda will be the preparation of the European Council, scheduled for June 27 and 28. (AP Photo/Hans Punz)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The fate of Greece's shaky coalition government is hanging in the balance after crucial talks to end a major disagreement over the closure of state TV collapsed late Thursday.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' surprise move last week to save money by shutting down ERT broadcaster — with the loss of all 2,656 jobs — sparked protests in Greece and abroad, and angered both his center-left allies.

After a first two rounds of negotiations this week, the three parties seemed headed for a compromise that would stave off early elections just one year into the government's four-year mandate. But the talks broke down during the third meeting Thursday, and it was unclear just how severe the rift is.

Samaras convened an urgent meeting with senior Cabinet aides, while Socialist Pasok head Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis consulted party officials.

Kouvelis said "no common political ground" was found in the meeting under Samaras. "This is not just a formal, procedural issue. ... For us it is a matter of the democratic rule of law."

A government collapse would severely compromise Greece's economic reform program, without which its vital international bailouts would be in doubt, and push the country back into the political instability that forced two national elections a year ago.

Venizelos said Greece's situation is "particularly crucial."

"''The question now is whether we will have early elections," he told journalists. "We do not fear elections ... but the people do not want elections. They want a government that works effectively."

Samaras lacks enough seats in Parliament to pass legislation without the backing of Pasok and the Democratic Left — although with the Socialists alone he would hold a three-seat majority in the 300-member house.

ERT, whose workforce costs have been considerably trimmed over the past three years, is funded by obligatory contributions from all Greeks — whether they own a TV set or not — and by advertising revenue. After years of murky finances, the corporation is now turning a modest profit, and critics argue that sacking its entire workforce makes no financial sense, particularly as the state budget will have to bear the cost of compensating all laid-off workers.

ERT's closure on June 11 sparked days of protests outside the corporation's Athens headquarters, and was sharply criticized abroad.

The Geneva, Switzerland-based, European Broadcasting Union has backed ongoing broadcasts by ERT employees that are being streamed online, while Amnesty International also condemned the shutdown.

EBU Director General Ingrid Deltenre, speaking at the European Parliament Thursday, sharply criticized Samaras' actions.

"The abrupt decision to close down ERT ... actually isn't going to save the country any money," she said. "ERT was funded from the license fee by citizens. ERT was generating a small surplus. The channel was not bankrupt."

A high court has sanctioned ERT's closure but condemned shutting off the signal, in a provisional ruling issued this week. Fired ERT employees protested outside the central Athens court Thursday as judges met to reach their final decision.