German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday voiced hope that Greece would overcome its challenges and remain in the eurozone, during her first visit to Athens since the start of the debt crisis which has cast a dark shadow over Europe since 2008.
Amid strict security measures and mass demonstrations against austerity, Merkel pledged Germany and the EU's support for Greece as long as the debt-crippled country continued on its challenging path of fiscal adjustment and reform.
"Significant progress has been achieved. I hope and wish that Greece will remain part of the euro," she said after talks with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. She repeatedly stressing in meetings with Greek political leadership that Germany was a good friend of the country and would do whatever possible to support Greece.
The German leader stressed that Athens should continue efforts to meet commitments in return for EU/International Monetary Fund bailout deals.
Merkel fell short of any breakthrough statements on the Greek crisis on camera, local analysts commented. Still, her presence in Athens and sympathetic words ahead of an important EU summit on Oct. 18 is deemed as a vote of support to the Greek government.
Despite her carrot and stick approach, the Chancellor's remarks could silence at least for a while speculation in the international media that Berlin and other European partners plan to let Greece default and exit the eurozone by the end of this year, Greek commentators stressed in first reactions on local television channels.
As Merkel wrapped up her six-hour stay in Athens and headed to the airport to depart for Berlin, Greek government sources revealed to local media that during closed-door talks Merkel appeared "open" to a discussion on an extension of Greece's fiscal adjustment plan to ease recession.
According to sources, all bailout issues would be settled as a package, but a final agreement during the Oct. 18 summit seemed "difficult" to reach, a report in the Greek national news agency AMNA said.
Following still inconclusive negotiations with auditors from the EU and IMF over a fresh austerity package for 2013-2014 needed to clear the way for the release of further financing to Athens this autumn, Greece hopes EU leaders will refer the issue to the next Eurogroup meeting.
Without the next tranche of funds, Greece will run out of cash by December, the government has warned.
Some 80,000 people protested peacefully against tough austerity measures, according to estimates from trade unions and opposition parties.
"We can't afford more cuts. Frau Merkel take your austerity and get out," chanted demonstrators at the Syntagma square in front of the parliament building shortly before the crowd dispersed after groups of anarchists started to clash with police forces, pelting rocks and petrol bombs.
One person was slightly injured and more than 200 people were detained throughout the day as a precautionary measure. A special security arrangement was made in Athens last seen in 1999, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the city.
Peoples' frustration over austerity was also noted by Greek President Karolos Papoulias as he received the Chancellor at the Presidential mansion. "We have reached our limits of endurance. We must focus on measures that will bring hope," he said.
A few hundred meters further in front of the parliament building, main opposition radical Left SYRIZA coalition leader Alexis Tsipras, with Bernd Riexinger, the chief of the German Leftist party Die Linke by his side, criticized the "Merkelist" handling of the crisis.
However, Samaras repeated once again on Tuesday his government's commitment to the current program to exit the crisis. "Greece is determined to keep its pledges and overcome the crisis," he said.