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Cyprus still locked in negotiations in last-ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy

Officials from the island nation are locked in late-night conversations with banking officials to head off default.

By Menelaos HadjicostisThe Associated Press / March 23, 2013



Cyprus officials and international representatives were caught up in tortuous negotiations late into the night Saturday as they sought to forge a plan to raise the money the island nation needs to qualify for a bailout package. Failure would mean Cyprus could declare bankruptcy in just three days and possibly have to exit the eurozone.

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It was not clear how far the two sides were getting: the information seeping out was conflicting.

Late in the evening, a finance ministry official said an accord was "very close," and would likely include a hefty tax of a fifth to a quarter of deposits over 100,000 euros at the country's troubled largest lender, Bank of Cyprus. But a banking official with knowledge of the talks said no deal was in the offing and wouldn't likely arrive before Sunday.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing and they were not authorized to release details.

Meanwhile, the state-run Cyprus News Agency quoted an anonymous top official as saying an agreement was not within sight because of the "rigid stance" by the representative of the International Monetary Fund.

Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in order to secure 10 billion euros in rescue loans from other European countries that use the single currency, as well as from the IMF.

The IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission — known as the troika — will determine whether the plan that the Cypriots devise will meet the requirements for any international bailout package. Then, the plan is to be presented to the eurozone finance ministers for final approval.

The country's lawmakers soundly rejected an unpopular initial plan that would have seized up to 10 percent of people's bank accounts, and Cyprus is now seeking another way to raise the desperately needed money. But the idea of some sort of deposit grab returned to the fore after Cyprus' attempt to gain Russian financial aid failed.

According to a second finance ministry official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak about the negotiations, new laws may not be needed if negotiators opt for a "voluntary contribution" from Bank of Cyprus savings accounts above 100,000 euros, which is the insurance limit.

Another option being considered is smaller tax on all bank deposits above 100,000 euros.

The ECB has said it will stop providing emergency funding to Cyprus' banks after Monday if no new plan is in place. Without the ECB's support, Cypriot banks would collapse on Tuesday, pushing the country toward bankruptcy and a potential exit from the 17-nation bloc that uses the euro currency.

"We recognize the progress now being made by the Cypriot government toward a solution which can pave the way for an agreement on a financial assistance program for Cyprus," European monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels. "Intensive work and contacts will continue in the coming hours."

President Nicos Anastasiades was among those locked in the late-night talks at his presidential palace with the troika and others. A eurozone finance ministers meeting is due to be held in Brussels on Sunday evening. Anastasiades was also expected to fly there.

Cypriot banks have been shut this past week while the plan was being worked out, and are not due to reopen until Tuesday. Cash has been available through ATMs, but many run out quickly, and those machines for the troubled Laiki Bank are only dispensing 260 euros a day.

Cyprus took significant steps toward cementing a new plan Friday night, when its lawmakers approved nine bills, including three crucial ones that will restructure ailing banks, restrict financial transactions in emergencies and set up a "solidarity fund" that will act as the vehicle for raising funds from investments and contributions.

The bank restructuring will include the country's troubled second largest lender, Laiki, which suffered heavy losses after being exposed to toxic Greek debt.

Thousands of angry bank employees afraid of losing their jobs marched through the center of Nicosia to the Finance Ministry and Parliament, some with placards around their necks reading: "No to the bankruptcy of Cyprus."

"We are protesting for our jobs, and jobs of all in Cyprus," bank employee Zoei Koiachi said.

Worried about her job after 36 years at Laiki, Eleni Koutsourdou said lawmakers should have approved the initial plan for the 10 percent deposit grab for the sake of protecting the financial sector. "It's unfair. They pocketed everything and we end up paying for it," she said.

The restructuring of Laiki and the sale of the toxic-asset laden Greek branches of Cypriot banks is expected to cut the amount the country needs to raise to about 3 billion euros instead of 5.8 billion euros, officials have said. Bank of Cyprus, which was also exposed to Greek debt, might also be involved in the restructuring.

"We have to be clear to protect the financial system and for banks to open Tuesday with a clear picture," Finance Minister Michalis Sarris said.

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