June 20, 2013
Merkel lands in Greece as protesters mass on streets
Germany's Angela Merkel arrived in Greece on her first visit since Europe's debt crisis erupted here three years ago, braving protests to deliver a message of support - but no new money - to a nation hammered by recession and fighting to stay in the euro.
Thousands of Greeks defied a ban on protests, gathering in Syntagma square in central Athens as Merkel's plane touched down. Two protesters dressed in German military uniforms waved a red-black-and-white swastika flag and held out their arms in the Nazi salute.
Many Greeks blame Merkel for forcing painful cuts on Greece in exchange for two EU-IMF bailout packages totalling over 200 billion euros.
Police have readied 6,000 officers, including anti-terrorist units and rooftop snipers, to provide security during the six-hour visit. German sites in the Greek capital, including the embassy and Goethe Institute, are under special protection.
Merkel was given the red carpet treatment and full military honours at Athens airport. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras greeted her with a handshake as she exited the German air force jet. A band played the German and Greek national anthems.
In the centre of Athens, the reception was less warm. On Syntagma square, banners read "Merkel out, Greece is not your colony" and "This is not a European Union, it's slavery".
"We don't want her here. Merkel go home!," said Maria Dimitriou, a 40-year-old unemployed woman who travelled to Athens from southern Greece to protest. "They've turned our lives into hell."
After steering clear of Greece for the past five years, Merkel decided to visit for several reasons.
She wants to show support for Samaras, a fellow conservative, as he struggles to impose more cuts on a society fraying at the edges after five years of recession.
At a joint appearance before the press in the afternoon, she is expected to confirm her desire to keep Greece in the euro zone, after members of her government flirted with the idea of an exit earlier this year.
Teachers, doctors and other public employees stopped work today in a gesture of protest, while trade unions and opposition political parties took to the streets, risking confrontation with police.
Demonstrations in Athens have a habit of turning violent, hijacked by radicals armed with petrol bombs and rocks ripped from the streets.
Greece is in talks with its "troika" of lenders - the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - on the next tranche of a 130-billion-euro ($170-billion) loan package, its second bailout since 2010.
Without the 31.5-billion-euro tranche, Greece says it will run out of money by the end of November.
Many Greeks say they cannot take more of the wage cuts and tax hikes that have left a quarter of the workforce jobless and slashed the country's economic output by a fifth.