ATHENS -- With Europe's debt crisis deepening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Greece on Tuesday to signal her support for a country where many blame her personally for driving their economy into the ground.
As the tough-talking German leader disembarked from a private jet, boarding a motorcade bound for central Athens, she swiftly shuttled into a lion's den of rage and resentment over the policies of austerity that she has insisted on as the price of emergency loans to keep cash-strapped Greece afloat.
Authorities deployed about 7,000 plainclothes police officers, snipers and commandos to lock down the Greek capital and fend off potential attacks from protesters angry over Merkel's visit, her first to this country since the European debt crisis began here three years ago. The visit is to last just seven hours.
As Merkel was being driven into downtown Athens, protesters dressed in Nazi uniforms rolled into Syntagma Square, outside the Greek Parliament building, in a military jeep festooned with swastika-stamped flags.
Since the visit was announced last week, opposition political parties, trade unions and anarchists have rallied Greeks to walk out of their jobs and join a string of protests that kicked off Monday and are set culminate later Tuesday when Merkel meets with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
At the head of a shaky coalition government, the conservative Samaras has struggled to agree with creditors from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank on $14 billion in added budget cuts. Last week, after a third round of talks, the situation remained at an impasse over about $5 billion in cuts, officials close to the negotiations said.
The stalemate threatens to toss Europe into fresh turmoil. Without an agreement, European leaders due to meet Oct. 18 will not be able to authorize a $40-billion installment of bailout loans to Greece. Without the funds, Athens could declare bankruptcy within weeks, potentially wreaking global financial havoc and forcing Greece out of the 17-nation bloc that uses the euro.
That Merkel, long demonized by the Greek public for her uncompromising policies, defied the protests and agreed to come to support Samaras shows "in the most demonstrable way possible her decision to tackle Europe's debt troubles with Greece in the euro equation," said George Pagoulatos, a professor of European politics and economy at Athens University.
It remained unclear whether Merkel's support would include heeding Samaras' plea for a two-year extension in implementing the $14 billion in spending cuts, which would ease the pain of Greece's deeper-than-expected recession, now in its fifth year.
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: Demonstrators in Athens on Monday night hold up a banner reading "Merkel out!" to protest Tuesday's visit to Greece by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP/Getty Images