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Greek bailout review to be interrupted for Catholic Easter

ATHENS, March 18 (Reuters) - EU and IMF inspectors assessing
Greece's bailout progress will leave Athens on Sunday and return
after Catholic Easter, sources close to the talks said, dashing
Greek hopes that the review could be concluded as early as the
end of March.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants to wrap up the bailout
review swiftly and start talks on debt relief to restore
confidence in the country's economy and convince Greeks that
their sacrifices are paying off after six years of austerity.

But the discussions, which if concluded successfully will
also unlock more bailout funds, have dragged on for months due
to disagreements over fiscal targets, pension cuts and tax
reforms between Athens and its European Union and International
Monetary Fund lenders and among the EU and IMF institutions.

The talks, which resumed earlier this month after a break in
February, were focused on finding ways to cover an estimated
fiscal gap of 3 percent of GDP by 2018, although the IMF
initially put the figure at 4.5 percent and Athens at 1 percent.

"The mission chiefs will leave Athens tomorrow evening after
a wrap-up of this phase and will return after Catholic Easter,"
a government official said on Saturday, adding that technical
teams would continue talks in the meantime.

Catholic Easter falls on March 27.

According to sources close to the talks EU lenders have been
more lenient during the review than the IMF, which has said that
Greece will need far bigger debt relief than euro zone partners
have been prepared to envisage. A meeting of euro zone finance
ministers in April will be crucial for Greece, which is also
dealing with a huge migrant crisis.

The government, which has a parliamentary majority of just
three seats, has pledged to trim its pension budget by 1 percent
of GDP this year but wants to avoid cutting pensions for a 12th
time since 2010 to plug the estimated fiscal hole.

Government officials said that during the latest round of
talks the IMF opposed key pension proposals, such as hiking
social security contributions, and wants to lower a tax exempt
threshold for low-income earners. It has also turned down a plan
giving tax evaders incentives to disclose hidden income, as part
of efforts to boost tax revenues.

"Such positions... seem to aim at distancing the possibility
of concluding the review," one of the officials said.

The IMF is expected to decide whether to co-finance Greece's
third bailout after the review and in light of how much debt
relief Greece receives.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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