Merkel pledges support for Greece in Athens visit

The BBC's Mark Lowen reports from Athens amid paint bombs being thrown at police, who returned fire with tear gas

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged her country's continuing support to Greece.

During her first visit there since the eurozone crisis erupted nearly three years ago, she said it had made good progress with its vast debt but that it was on a "difficult path".

Thousands of Greeks who blame Germany for forcing painful austerity measures on them have protested in Athens.

Police used teargas and stun grenades against some of the demonstrators.

Correspondents say this highly symbolic visit was 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.

Analysis

There were two different faces of Greece on display today. As the German Chancellor arrived, she was greeted with full military honours by the government, welcomed with open arms by a prime minister delighted by her show of support.

But in central Athens, thousands protested against Mrs Merkel's visit, some holding banners with Nazi references, one group clashing with riot police. A sign of the deep divisions here.

In the end there were no grand announcements - just the symbolism. Mrs Merkel backed Greece's place in the Eurozone; Mr Samaras talked of a "new page" in relations.

For a Greek prime minister trying to rebuild his country's credibility, the fact that she came at all was hugely significant. Europe's paymaster has long criticised from afar, berating the lack of progress here.

Now she stood alongside her Greek counterpart, endorsing his policies. Greece's government, under pressure to cut further, will be reassured. But on the streets of Athens, the anger will continue to boil.

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 for her five-hour visit.

At a joint news conference with Mr Samaras, Mrs Merkel said the pace of reform in Greece had "picked up considerably" and that the country had "a good bit of the path" behind it.

"Much has been achieved but much needs to be done and Germany and Greece will continue to co-operate very closely together in this respect," she said.

She acknowledged that there were "many people suffering in Greece" as a result of the financial crisis and austerity measures, but that it was necessary to ensure future generations could live in prosperity.

"I hope and wish that Greece remains a member of the eurozone," she said. "As partners, we are working hard to achieve that."

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 rejected speculation that his country could be forced to abandon the euro.

Chancellor Merkel: "Much has been achieved, much remains to be done"

"The Greek people are bleeding right now, but they are determined to win the battle of competitiveness," he said.

Stun grenades

Some 7,000 police officers were on duty in Athens for Mrs Merkel's visit - one of the capital's biggest security operation in a decade.

Protests were banned in much of central Athens, and within 100 metres of the route of Mrs Merkel's motorcade.

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.

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What is unclear is how much patience the people of these indebted countries have. Will they give their politicians time or in the end will this crisis be settled on the streets?”

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The crowds have largely been peaceful, though some protesters threw bottles, masonry and rocks towards police lines.

Police fired teargas and used stun grenades against a group of protesters attempting to break through barriers and get to parliament buildings. Dozens of people were detained.

One of the peaceful protesters, 37-year-old teacher Christina Vassilopoulou, said she had a doctorate but was making only 900 euros a month.

"We have children that go hungry and most of the parents are unemployed," she told AFP news agency.

Another protester, lawyer Constantine Spiliagopoulos, said Mrs Merkel, was "one of the main reasons that Greece's low income and the working classes of Greece are under attack".

"That is why we must make our presence felt, we must shout against these polices and show that we will do everything so that they do not continue," she said.

But some Athens citizens were upbeat about the visit.

Demonstrators display a banner reading "Frau Merkel, get out"

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 BBC's Europe correspondent, Chris Morris, says most people in Greece know that mistakes have been made in the past and that things have to change.

But much of what Greece borrowed was willingly lent to them by banks in Germany, France and elsewhere, our correspondent adds, so when it comes to deciding who should take the pain for recovering the debt there are no easy answers.

Germany, as a creditor, also has has a growing image problem in many southern European countries, he said, something Mrs Merkel would like to change, especially in an election year.

Are you in Athens? Are you attending the protests? What do you think of Angela Merkel's visit?

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