Merkel pledges support for Greece in Athens visit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged her country’s continuing support to Greece, during her first visit to Athens since the eurozone crisis erupted nearly three years ago.

Mrs Merkel said Greece had made good progress in dealing with its vast debt but that it was on a “difficult path”.

Thousands of people who blame Germany for forcing painful austerity measures on Greece are protesting in Athens.

Police have fired teargas towards some stone-throwing demonstrators.

Correspondents say this highly symbolic visit is a show of support for Greece’s continued membership of the eurozone.

It comes as Greece prepares to pass new cuts of 13bn euros (£10.5bn; $17bn) to qualify for more bailout cash, a policy that has sparked growing unrest.

While Germany has contributed the most money to the bailout, BBC Europe editor Gavin Hewitt says its chancellor is held responsible by many for demanding that Greece make swingeing cuts in exchange for the financing it has received.

‘Spirit of collaboration’
Mrs Merkel was met by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on arrival in Athens.

At a news conference after talks with Mr Samaras and business leaders, Mrs Merkel said the pace of reform in Greece had recently “picked up considerably” and that the country had “a good bit of the path” behind it.

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In pictures: Anti-Merkel protest in Athens
She acknowledged that there were “many people suffering in Greece” as a result of the financial crisis and austerity measures, but that the difficult path was necessary to ensure future generations could live in prosperity

Mr Samaras said their meeting had been “dominated by frankness, mutual understanding, solidarity, a spirit of collaboration and a feeling that we can overcome the Greek problem, and obviously, the European problems alike”.

He said Greece was “determined to fulfil its obligations and overcome this crisis” and was determined to stay in the eurozone.

Mrs Merkel’s visit was a “token of proof” of the progress Greece has made, he said.

The capital is said to be carrying out its biggest security operation in a decade, with some 7,000 police on duty.

Protests have been banned for the day in much of central Athens, and within a 100m radius of the route Mrs Merkel’s motorcade will travel.

However, outside the lockdown zone, thousands of people gathered, some carrying banners with slogans such as “No to the Fourth Reich”.

A three-hour strike was also called for the early afternoon.

Symbolic visit
The crowds have largely been peaceful, though some protesters threw bottles, masonry and rocks torwards police lines. Police fired teargas when one group attempted to break through a barrier to reach parliament buildings.

The BBC’s Mark Lowen in Athens says there is a wave of popular anger on the streets against the visit
Dozens of people have been detained.

But despite the protests, some Athens citizens were upbeat about the visit.

Constantinos Siathas told Associated Press: “I think most people, at least those who think and don’t act based on feelings or utopian ideas, are pleased and are expecting a lot from Mrs Merkel’s visit.”

Earlier, a spokesperson for the leftist Syriza party, Yiannis Bournos, told the BBC’s Newsday people were “frustrated and enraged because they clearly understand that Mrs Merkel’s visit is just a theatre play for the political support of a collapsing coalition”.

The trip is a gamble, our Europe editor says – chaos on the streets would only underline for the German public that Greece is a lost cause.

But he says that the visit – her first to Greece in five years – is sending a symbolic message that she wants Greece to stay in the eurozone.

Speaking on Monday, Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup finance ministers of the eurozone, raised the pressure on Greece, calling on the government to demonstrate it could implement planned reforms “by 18 October at the latest” to qualify for the next bailout instalment of 31.5bn euros.

He was speaking as the eurozone’s new permanent fund to bail out struggling economies and banks was formally launched at the finance ministers’ meeting.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund said on Monday that the global economic recovery was weakening, with government policies having failed to restore confidence.

It added that the risk of further deterioration in the economic outlook was “considerable” and had increased.