Ash delays EU/IMF talks in Greece until Wednesday

ATHENS (Reuters) - A joint mission of European officials and the International Monetary Fund to Greece has been delayed by the volcanic ash cloud and will arrive on Wednesday if possible, Greece’s Finance Ministry said on Sunday.

Struggling under a huge budget shortfall and debt pile, Greece requested the talks with the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF last week to go over details of a potential aid deal agreed by euro zone states.

The mission was scheduled to begin talks on Monday on a three-year policy program for Greece that investors are increasingly convinced will lead the debt-stricken country to tap an IMF/EU aid mechanism.

The ministry said widespread flight cancellations had forced the meetings back at least two days.

“The new scheduled day for the start of consultations is Wednesday, April 21, if conditions allow,” the ministry said in a statement.

An IMF spokesman said most IMF members of the mission had arrived in Athens and were ready to begin talks with the government although delays in the arrival of EU officials could postpone the talks.

“It is possible that the start of discussions will be delayed until Wednesday, as the Greek authorities may wish to await the arrival of EU Commission staff in Athens, which has been delayed,” the spokesman added.

The Mediterranean country of 11 million has yet to ask for the package, which at an estimated 45 billion euros ($62.91 billion) in the first year would be the largest such bailout ever attempted.

IMF officials have said the mission should last about 15 days and any agreement would be finalized shortly afterward by the IMF board.

On Saturday, Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said it would take “one week, two weeks maximum” for euro zone countries to trigger the mechanism if Greece were to ask for it.

Investors and Greek media see that as increasingly likely since a bid by euro zone leaders to flesh out its details has failed to rein in the spike in borrowing costs that have complicated Greece’s deficit-cutting plans.

“The certainty is becoming stronger day by day that resorting to the support mechanism is already a one-way road and the International Monetary Fund’s role will be upgraded from a supervisor to a lender,” daily ETHNOS wrote in a Sunday column.

Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington, writing by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Charles Dick and Cynthia Osterman