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Athens News Agency: News in English (PM), 99-07-15

Athens News Agency: News in English Directory - Previous Article - Next Article

From: The Athens News Agency at <http://www.ana.gr>

NEWS IN ENGLISH

Athens, Greece, 15/07/1999 (ANA)


MAIN HEADLINES

  • Cohen lauds Athens on Balkan reconstruction, bilateral cooperation
  • Bus hijacking in northern Greece again grips nation
  • Tripartite talks between FMs of Greece, FYROM, Albania
  • Russian warships unload troops, material in Thessaloniki
  • Measures on public procurement contracts
  • Moody's gives Greece ratings upgrade
  • EFG Eurobank ups the stakes in battle for Ergobank
  • Gov't threatens oil firms with price ceiling
  • Stocks end flat in directionless trade
  • Weather
  • Foreign exchange

NEWS IN DETAIL

Cohen lauds Athens on Balkan reconstruction, bilateral cooperation

US Secretary of Defense William Cohen reiterated yesterday what he called "Greece's leading role" in the Balkans' reconstruction and referred to close bilateral cooperation between Athens and Washington, during a press briefing at the US embassy and after meeting PM Costas Simitis.

Although troubled Kosovo and the search for increased stability throughout the Balkans was by far the focus of Mr. Cohen's talks with Greek leadership, other thorny issues the US official brought up included cooperation on combating terrorism and Greek- Turkish relations.

"We're also exploring new ways to improve relations with Turkey. The recent talks between the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, I think, is a very important step. Based on the meetings yesterday (in Thessaloniki) and again here today, I must say that I leave with great confidence that Greece and the United States are entering an even stronger relationship and partnership for the future," he told reporters in Athens, adding however, that Washington does not intend to "pressure anyone".

Mr. Cohen arrived in Athens yesterday after first landing in Thessaloniki on Tuesday, where he held talks with his Greek counterpart Akis Tsohatzopoulos before visiting the USS h carrier "Kearsarge" - anchored off the northern city's port - to address its crew.

In Thessaloniki Mr. Cohen also announced US plans to set up a commercial bureau in the northern port city with a view to participating in the Yugoslavia reconstruction effort.

"What we do is to encourage Greece and Turkey to find a way to resolve disputes that have been pressing for some time. We would leave it up to the Greek government and the Turkish government to resolve their differences. The United States does not seek to become in any way an arbitrator or in any way to pressure either government. This is something that must be resolved by the two countries," he said.

Responding to a question over terrorism, the US official initially pointed the large-scale bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York a few years ago as well as the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma to cite what he called "horrific dam age" from terrorism.

He did emphasise that he was satisfied with Athens' commitment to combat terrorism, as he said.

"We are concerned with acts of terrorism directed at our citizens, and I would assume that Greek citizens are also concerned about any acts of terrorism because terrorists are totally 'antithetical' to our democratic values, which we share. And that is that terrorists seek, to instill terror, and to portray to the people that the government cannot protect them," Mr. Cohen said, adding:

"Greek citizens do not want that, American citizens do not want that, so to the extent there can be any kind of sharing of information of how we can combat terrorism, then we should do so..."

The US defence secretary also said solidarity among the NATO allies and the determination they displayed had served Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a "very strong lesson".

In statements to the US embassy's staff and employees afterwards, Mr. Cohen, who was accompanied by US Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, among others, referred to his college days in Maine and his interest in the classical period, his lead-in to praising the embassy's efforts in operating in an allied country where a majority of the public opinion was against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

He left for Ankara yesterday evening.

Bus hijacking in northern Greece again grips nation

Negotiations were continuing Thursday with a grenade-armed Albanian for the release of seven hostages in a bus hijacked by the Albanian Wednesday afternoon in Polykastro, near Thessaloniki in northern Greece, police said.

Police last night blocked the KTEL intercity bus outside Florina, approximately a half-hour drive from the border with Albania, and a senior Thessaloniki police official told ANA that the Albanian would not be allowed to leave with the seven hostages -- six passengers and the bus driver.

The officer said the hostages were in good condition and were supplied regularly with food and water.

Police launched a "sweep" operation in the area as a precautionary measure in the event that the hijacker had accomplices in Florina, following his insistence that the bus pass through the town.

Television camera crews have also been kept at a distance from the bus in order to isolate the hijacker and avoid giving him the sense of being a "protagonist in a TV serial", as had occurred during an almost carbon copy intercity bus hijacking by another Albanian less than two months ago.

In the previous hijacking, in late May, an Albanian armed with an assault rifle and a hand grenade led a KTEL bus around northern Greece before crossing into albania at the Krystallopigi border post. The hijacker and a passenger/hostage were killed during a botched rescue attempt by Albanian police.

The police officer told ANA that the hijacker in this incident had been told he would not be allowed to cross into Albania unless he released all the hostages.

Police said they tried to keep the hijacker alert throughout the night so that a hand-grenade he was holding, from which he has reportedly removed the pin, would not fall from his hands.

Police shined floodlights on the front and back side of the bus at intervals to monitor the situation and also give some encouragement to the hostages, the officer said.

Tripartite talks between FMs of Greece, FYROM, Albania

Foreign minister George Papandreou and his Albanian and FYROM counterparts, Paskal Milo and Aleksandr Dimitrov, respectively, met in the Prespes lake district of northern Greece yesterday for talks on various issues.

The meeting, held on the Aghios Achilleios islet on the lake, focused mainly on drafting common programmes for trilateral cooperation in Balkan reconstruction, security of borders and tackling illegal immigration, as well as tripartite cooperation in ge neral in the fields of the economy, culture and environmental protection.

Mr. Papandreou said such programmes would include the creation of an "ecological park" in the Prespes district, the promotion of eco-tourism, and the creation of a "free-access zone" for the citizens of the three countries.

He also announced that Athens intended to submit at an informal European summit in Tampere, Finland, a proposal for the promotion of cooperation between the three countries within the framework of EU stabilisation plans for the western Balkans. The proposal will concern European funding for cross-border cooperation in dealing with crime.

Cooperation was also agreed within the framework of the Stability Pact for SE Europe, involving the submission of common proposals to the planned Sarajevo summit on July 30, on the sidelines of which the three countries' prime ministers will hold an informal session.

Mr. Papandreou also assured his counterparts of Athens' support for their countries' European vocation, stressing that Athens considered reconstruction plans should have a broader Balkan dimension, and include, apart from Kosovo, both Albania and FYROM, which were most affected by the crisis.

The three ministers agreed to meet next in the FYROM lakeside resort of Ochrid.

Joint communique : Afterwards, all three FMs ratified a joint communique underlining the significance Greece, Albania and FYROM attribute to newly established tripartite cooperation.

The joint communique stresses a common will to strengthen regional cooperation, as well as cooperation at European level, and underlines that the incorporation of Albania and FYROM in the European family, with support by Mr. Papandreou, will strengthen peace and stability in the region.

The joint communique added that Mr. Papandreou "reiterated Greek support for the speediest possible accession of the countries represented by Mr. Dimitrov and Milo to the European Union and NATO and the deepening of relations in the framework of the association and stabilisation agreements.

Russian warships unload troops, material in Thessaloniki

Five Russian warships arrived at the port of Thessaloniki yesterday morning carrying troops, military vehicles and supplies destined for the peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

The Russian vessels, carrying 450 soldiers, 130 vehicles and about 100 tonnes of supplies, will remain in port until the vehicles and supplies have been loaded into containers to be carried overland to Kosovo through FYROM.

Meanwhile, the British warship "Centurion" was expected to arrive in Thessaloniki yesterday evening to collect about 700 British soldiers returning from Kosovo. The Italian ship "Megior" was also expected to arrive in the afternoon to unload 100 vehicles, 50 containers and an unspecified number of men.

The Spanish warship "Martin Posadillo" is also expected in Thessaloniki today, carrying a military force, while three US ships will collect 300 military vehicles and men returning from Kosovo as well.

In a related development, the Communist Party of Greece's (KKE) local organisation in Thessaloniki was due to organise a gathering outside the port's gate 11 in protest against the arrival of the Russian troops and their passage through Greek territory.

Measures on public procurement contracts

The government yesterday announced a series of measures regarding public procurement contracts, aimed to promote transparency and healthy competition.

The measures provide for an expansion of the responsibilities of the State Audit Council to goods contracts exceeding 500 million drachmas and public projects worth more than one billion drachmas, and the setting up of a Procurement Policy and Planning Committee to deal with contracts of large technological and financial value. The committe will include representatives of parties and at least one high judicial official.

The measures, to be tabled in Parliament soon, will also include the publication of contracts in a weekly special bulletin of the Government Gazette, and the introduction of "specification certification" that all public organisations will have to submit .

Moody's gives Greece ratings upgrade

Moody's Investors Service yesterday announced it had upgraded the ceiling on Greece's foreign currency rating for debt and bank deposits from Baa1 to A2.

The credit rating agency said the decision was based on the "high likelihood" that Greece would soon qualify to join the euro zone.

Moody's said that following the decision the Baa1-rated foreign currency bonds issued by the Hellenic Republic and by the Bank of Greece were upgraded to A2, along with the foreign-currency issuer rating of Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation.

"Assuming continued price restraint and no divergence on other economic criteria, ECOFIN is likely in May 2000 to certify Greece's eligibility to join the currency union," the international debt ratings agency said in a statement.

"This would clear the way for Greece to enter the euro area as of January 2001, precisely in line with the Greek government's own schedule," the statement said.

Moody's added that it would maintain a positive outlook on Greece's country ceiling ratings due to its near-term prospects for joining the Aaa rated euro zone.

The agency said the outlook for the Hellenic Republic's debt ratings was now stable at the A2 rating, reflecting Greece's structural weaknesses versus the higher-rated countries in the European Union.

EFG Eurobank ups the stakes in battle for Ergobank

Consolidated Eurofinance Holdings (CEH), parent company of EFG Eurobank, yesterday made a new move in a hostile takeover bid for Ergobank, raising its stock swap offer.

The move came in response to an earlier stock swap proposal by the Bank of Piraeus Group, which Ergobank's management supported after urging shareholders to reject EFG Eurobank's initial surprise hostile bid.

Bank of Piraeus' direct offer to shareholders followed a merger plan it had proposed to Ergobank's management, which was accepted.

CEH, a member of the EFG Bank Group, yesterday offered 2.4 shares in EFG Eurobank plus 17,000 drachmas in cash for each Ergobank share, improving its first offer, Eurobank said in a statement.

Based on a five-day average of the two banks' closing prices (July 8 to July 14), the offer represented a value of 56,312 drachmas per share, the statement said.

A successful outcome to the Latsis Group's offer would lead to Ergobank's integration into the EFG Bank Group with the target bank maintaining its autonomy. It would cooperate and coordinate with EFG Eurobank, the statement said.

Both EFG Eurobank and Ergobank would have the status of separate subsidiaries within the Group. A possible future merger between the two banks would be examined within two years, the statement said.

EFG Eurobank and Deutsche Bank of Germany already are minority shareholders in Ergobank. Deutsche Bank is also a minority shareholder in EFG Eurobank.

The three banks involved in the acquisition bid are privately owned and listed on the Athens Stock Exchange.

Ergobank executive resigns due to Latsis family link : A vice president of Ergobank resigned from his position yesterday to forestall charges of a possible conflict of interest.

Ergobank's board of directors accepted the resignation of Panayotis Lambropoulos, who cited a family connection with Spyros Latsis.

One of the two bidders for Ergobank is the Latsis Group.

Gov't threatens oil firms with price ceiling

Development Minister Evangelos Venizelos said yesterday that he would slap a price ceiling on fuel in five days if oil companies ignored indicative retail rates set by the government each week.

The worst cases of overcharging were reported in border areas and the islands, where prices were up to 20 drachmas above the government's benchmark rates, Mr. Venizelos said.

The country is divided into price zones in order to take into account regional differences.

In the areas where the worst offences were found, the government was already subsidising transport costs for liquid fuel and lowered the Value Added Tax bracket, Mr. Venizelos said.

Prices were acceptable in the major urban centres of Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus, he added.

The minister also called on consumers to aid the drive for fair prices by picking and choosing among retailers, and reporting steep hikes to the ministry's market control authorities.

On Tuesday, prefects around the country were given the right to impose fines of up to 10 million drachmas on oil companies for violations of the law on petroleum product sales.

The measure is in addition to existing legal penalties imposed by other authorities.

The government's indicative retail sales prices in effect from today for a week include a rise of 1.90 drachmas per litre of super gasoline, taking the price per litre to 220.70 drachmas in Athens and Thessaloniki, and 230.60 drachmas in the Argosaronic islands.

Stocks end flat in directionless trade

Equity prices ended mixed to lower yesterday with the positive impact of a decision by Moody's, the international credit rating agency, to upgrade Greece's foreign currency debt and bank deposits offset by inflation and takeover fears.

Traders said the market remained worried over the repercussions of rising oil prices on domestic inflation, and over a running battle by EFG Eurobank and Bank of Piraeus to acquire Ergobank.

All three banks are listed.

The general index ended 0.02 percent lower at 4,240.94 points. Turnover was 147.341 billion drachmas with 31,868,788 shares changing hands.

Sector indices ended as follows: Banks (+0.26 pct), Leasing (-2.16 pct), Insurance (+0.53 pct), Investment (+0.42 pct), Construction (-0.58 pct), Industrials (-0.49 pct), Miscellaneous (-0.46 pct) and Holding (-1.42 pct). The parallel market index for smaller capitalisation stocks rose 1.29 percent while the FTSE/ASE 20 index for heavily traded stocks and blue chips remained unchanged at 2,489.89 points.

Broadly, decliners led advancers by 171 to 120 with another eight issues unchanged.

WEATHER

Mostly fair weather will prevail throughout the country on Thursday with scattered showers in central and northern mainland Greece.

Winds will be northerly, moderate to strong. Partly cloudy in Athens where temperatures will range between 24-37C. Scattered showers in Thessaloniki where temperatures will be from 22-32C.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE

Thursday's rates (buying)
U.S. dollar          316.587
Pound sterling       493.004
Japanese yen (100)   261.967
French franc          49.119
German mark          164.739
Italian lira (100)    16.641
Irish Punt           409.112
Belgian franc          7.987
Finnish mark          54.190
Dutch guilder        146.209
Danish kr.            43.325
Austrian sch.         23.415
Spanish peseta         1.936
Swedish kr.           36.825
Norwegian kr.         39.577
Swiss franc          200.751
Port. Escudo           1.607
Can. dollar          213.419
Aus. dollar          208.885
Cyprus pound         559.131
Euro                 322.202
(L.G.)
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