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By Renee Maltezou and Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece announced the closure of its state broadcaster out of the blue on Tuesday, one of the most drastic measures yet in its struggle to shore up its bankrupt state finances and meet the terms of an international bailout.
The decision to take ERT off the air at midnight and pay off some 2,600 staff before relaunching it in a slimmed-down form set off a firestorm of protests from trade unions and even junior partners in the ruling coalition. Some of the channels appeared to shut down even before the deadline.
"At a time when the Greek people are enduring sacrifices, there is no room for delay, hesitation or tolerance for sacred cows," spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said in what was almost certainly ERT's last televised government statement.
The three domestic television channels, along with regional, national and external radio stations, cost Greece 300 million euros ($400 million) a year, and Kedikoglou said it had become a "typical case of ... incredible waste".
Thousands gathered outside ERT's headquarters after the announcement, vowing to fight the decision, and riot police blocked the entrance to a studio in central Athens where protesters had unfolded a banner reading "Down with the junta, ERT won't close!".
"Today is Tuesday, June 11, and it is a difficult day," anchorwoman Elli Stai told viewers from the studio as crowds of workers outside chanted and clapped.
"We will broadcast what appears to be our last news bulletin with the composure, consistency and professionalism that we are used to."
Private TV stations took their live shows off air for six hours in a display of solidarity, replacing them with re-runs and adverts. None ran the traditional 8 p.m. news bulletin.
The announcement followed an embarrassing failure on Monday to find a buyer for the gas firm DEPA as part of a broad sell-off of state assets, leaving Greece short of the cash to meet its bailout targets.
STRAINS IN GOVERNMENT
The closure of ERT immediately opened cracks in Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's fragile three-party coalition, whose two junior partners protested that they had not been consulted.
"Public broadcasting can't shut down," said Yannis Maniatis, a senior official of the Socialist PASOK party. "A three-way coalition doesn't work with 'faits accomplis'."
At the protest rally, opposition leader Alexis Tsipras called the closure "a coup, not only against ERT workers but against the Greek people", and accused the government of the "historic responsibility of gagging state TV".
The decision was made by ministerial decree, meaning that it could be implemented without reference to parliament.
"Journalism is being persecuted. We won't allow the voice of Greece to be silenced," said George Savvidis, the chief of journalists' labour union POESY.
Kedikoglou said ERT's staff would be encouraged to apply for jobs in a relaunched broadcaster, but did not spell out what this would look like.
European Broadcasting Union President Jean Paul Philippot wrote to Samaras urging him to reverse the decision.
"National broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty," he wrote.
Inspectors from the "troika" of lenders - the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank - arrived in Athens on Monday for their latest inspection of Greece's progress in saving money under the bailout programme.
PASOK linked ERT's closure with a demand by the troika for 2,000 layoffs in the state sector by August, and called for an immediate meeting of party leaders.
"PASOK is in favour of brave, substantial state reforms," it said. "It is, however, against fleeting and dangerous moves that are aimed to impress."
Before the failure of the DEPA sale, Greece had been enjoying unexpected optimism from investors, who had pushed down bond yields and spurred talk of a recovery, a year after Greece almost crashed out of the euro zone.
(Additional reporting by John Kolesidis and Harry Papachristou; Editing by Deepa Babington)
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