Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias said yesterday that he was prepared to visit Belgrade at any moment to help salvage hopes for peace in Bosnia.
Expressing concern at the sudden worsening of the situation in Bosnia "one step before Belgrade was ready to recognise Bosnia's territorial integrity and international borders", Mr. Papoulias said that he was in continuous contact with National Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis, Belgrade and the European Union, the Contact Group and the US.
"The Greek government insists that efforts be continued to support the peace process in Bosnia-Herzegovina," he said, shortly after talks with his Ivory Coast counterpart and former chairman of the UN General Assembly Amar Asal. "Most certainly, the issue of (Greece) providing assistance in the case that UN peacekeepers withdraw from the region is occupying our attention," he said.
The situation in Bosnia took a further dive yesterday after Bosnian Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic was killed by a rocket attack on his helicopter, apparently by Serbs. His death comes after NATO air strikes and a spate of hostage-taking by Bosnian-Serb forces.
Greece has been involved in two trilateral meetings between the foreign ministers of Iran and Bosnia - one in Athens in March and in Tehran in April - aimed at finding ways to bring peace to the beleaguered former Yugoslav republic.
On the issue of providing assistance in the event of a UN withdrawal from the region, Mr. Papoulias stressed that Greece's position was one of non-involvement in the conflict. He expressed the hope that the decisions taken at the forthcoming meeting of NATO foreign ministers would contribute to peace efforts.
Asked by reporters to comment on the tactics employed by Bosnian Serb forces, which have involved using at least 17 UN peacekeepers as "human shields" against NATO air strikes, Mr. Papoulias said that "such acts do not help towards peace. What is needed is cool-headed-ness, prudence and sound judgement". "The idea that peace has to be achieved must prevail in (the Bosnian Serbs' headquarters of) Pale," he said.
Mr. Papoulias said his talks with Mr. Asal had focused on UN issues, the Cyprus problem, the Bosnian crisis and bilateral matters. Mr. Asal thanked Mr. Papoulias for what he called Greece's "protective stance" which, he said, he had ascertained during his term as UN General Assembly chairman. Relations between the Ivory Coast and Greece were very good, Mr. Asal added.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos said Greece was closely following developments in Bosnia. "Unfortunately, these types of air strikes have also been launched in the past. Greece has already made its position on these issues known and this position has the consent of the country's main political forces," Mr. Venizelos said.
"The government is closely watching these developments, minute by minute, because as a Balkan country, Greece has particular interest and sensitivity," he added.
President Kostis Stephanopoulos also expressed his concern at developments in Bosnia yesterday. Speaking from Kozani, where he is on a tour of the quake-hit regions, he said that dialogue was the best solution.
Last night, Mr. Papoulias expressed his grief at the death of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic. "I wish to express my deepest grief over the unwarranted death of the foreign minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Irfan Ljubijankic with whom we have co-operated in the framework of the tripartite initiative for the peaceful solution of the Bosnian crisis," he said.
Mr. Papoulias added that the Greek government will continue its efforts to ease tension in the region and achieve a peaceful, just and viable solution of the Bosnian question. He said such a solution can only be attained through peaceful means.
Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou had consecutive meetings with Parliament President Apostolos Kaklamanis and National Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis at his home in Ekali, northern Athens on Saturday.
Mr. Kaklamanis told reporters that his talks with Mr. Papandreou had centred on the course of the government's legislative work and on starting date of the House's summer session. Mr. Arsenis said his meeting with the premier had dealt with his immediate visit to the US, the forthcoming meeting of NATO defence ministers and the outcome of his visit to the region of Thrace.
He said developments in Bosnia were also discussed and that he would be conferring with his US counterpart on the matter. He added that he did not want to go into detail on the developments but that the government was concerned at the course of developments there.
Referring to the possibility of former Turkish prime minister and leader of the Motherland Party Mesut Yilmaz visiting Thrace, Mr. Arsenis said that Greece's policy was not based on the actions of others since Greece's national strategy was well-known and a given.
The economic and social development programme for Thrace was proceeding apace, he said and the bolstering of defence was also proceeding satisfactorily and Greece's defence forces can deal with threats regardless of their origin.
He clarified that Greek-Turkish relations were not on the agenda of either the NATO defence ministers meeting not would they be discussed during his visit to the US but did not rule out the eventuality of their being discussed on a bilateral level. Mr . Arsenis also announced that the prime minister would visit the National Defence Ministry in the coming weeks.
Environment, Town Planning and Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis on Saturday announced a comprehensive programme for the reconstruction of the quake-stricken regions of Grevena and Kozani, northern Greece.
The programme provides for rent subsidies of up to 60,000 drachmas per month for each family, for as long as it takes to repair or rebuild badly damaged homes. In addition, a special allowance of 100,000 drachmas will be given to all pensioners insured with principal insurance funds.
Retired farmers will receive 50,000 drachmas. The amount of 100,000 drachmas will also be given to all unemployed persons not currently receiving any benefit, while those receiving unemployment benefit will get 50,000 drachmas. Grants will be given to companies whose operations have been disrupted by the quake, provided they undertake to keep the number of staff at pre-quake levels.
Under the programme, the prefecture of Grevena will be eligible for the special provisions applying to regions with high unemployment. Families in the quake-stricken areas who have been made homeless will be able to either rebuild their homes with free assistance from the state and an interest-free loan or opt for a free prefabricated new home of 50-60 square metres, depending on the size of the family.
Special facilities will also be extended to quake victims with debts to the state to help them pay off the amounts owing in 60 monthly instalments without additional charges. The time limit within which Value Added Tax must be paid has also been extended.
The Hellenic Organisation of Small and Medium Size Enterprises and Handicrafts (EOMMEX) will assist SMEs by suspending loan repayments for two and a half years, interest free. The loans will be repaid on favourable terms over a period of five years, beginning on January 1, 1998.
The Public Power Corporation will provide free electricity to the camps which have been set up and will not demand payment of electricity bills for houses which have been destroyed or are uninhabitable. The Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation is providing similar assistance.
Special assistance in the form of free financing and interest rate subsidies will also be provided to farmers and livestock breeders. The Agricultural Bank of Greece will extend consumer loans to farmers at an interest rate reduced by four percentage points.
Mr. Laliotis said that 10 billion drachmas would be allocated for infrastructure works and over one billion drachmas to repair damage to museums, monuments and churches.
The devastating earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit the Northwest region last week, destroying some 5,000 buildings. Estimates have put the cost of damage at 105 billion drachmas. The quake was followed by a series of aftershocks, two registering 5.1 on the Richter scale and many more measuring 4.0 and over.
The main opposition New Democracy party and the Communist Party of Greece both criticised the measures announced by the government as not meeting the immediate needs of the quake victims. "The measures... do not correspond to the real needs of the quake victims," New Democracy said, adding that it would soon announce its own proposal for measures.
"The measures do not meet the immediate needs of the quake victims, which are housing and jobs," the KKE said.
Meanwhile, the organisers of a phone-in on Greek Television 3 (ET3) Thursday night, aimed at raising funds for the quake victims, said that offers of cash, goods and services had exceeded 100 million drachmas in value.
President of the Republic Kostis Stephanopoulos yesterday toured the quake-hit regions in a bid to "show the state's limitless support." "I have come to offer my moral support and I hope that with the measures announced by the government a new start can take place in the region," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. The president was due to return to Athens late last night.
National Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis was due to start an official visit to the United States yesterday for talks with his US counterpart William Perry, it was announced Saturday. Mr. Arsenis will also have talks with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, special adviser to President Bill Clinton George Stephanopoulos and Senator Paul Sarbanes.
During his stay, Mr. Arsenis will visit the base of the airborne brigade at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and the Shaw air base in South Carolina. Mr. Arsenis will end his visit on June 1.
Foreign Under-Secretary Nikos Kouris will open a two-day conference today on "European Security -- Present and Future." The conference will be attended by academics, politicians, representatives of international organisations and European security experts.
Panayiotis Sideris was yesterday elected president of the main opposition New Democracy party's youth wing (ONNED) after voting by the newly-elected central committee.
The result was a formality, given that owing to the absolute majority system employed, all 100 members elected to the central committee on May 22 belong to the group headed by Mr. Sideris.
Mr. Sideris, who had the support of party leader Miltiades Evert, was elected by 99 votes in favour and one blank ballot.
Greece said on Saturday that a visit to Greece by former Turkish prime minister and leader of the Motherland Party Mesut Yilmaz would be a political visit, regardless of whether it was official or not.
Asked by reporters if Mr. Yilmaz's visit would be official or unofficial, Mr. Venizelos observed that Mr. Aktuna's visit was neither official nor a working visit, "therefore such a visit, which is not of a diplomatic nature, is political".
Greece, he said, refuses to follow Turkey's example and use the vocabulary of artificial tension but will not tolerate affronts against its national dignity and sovereign rights. Mr. Venizelos was responding to recent statements by Mr. Yilmaz, who threatened to reconvert the Ayia Sophia Byzantine cathedral in Istanbul into a mosque if what he called "religious and cultural pressures" against Moslems in Western Thrace did not stop.
Asked to comment on Mr. Yilmaz's statements, Mr. Venizelos said that "unfortunately, we frequently hear these kinds of threats, which are an affront to international law, from Turkish politicians".
"I believe that our stance is well known and clear. We do not reproduce the vocabulary of artificial tension, but we do not accept affronts to our national dignity and sovereign rights. The government deals with the issue of visits to Greece by Turkish officials within the framework of international law and the practice normally observed in relations between states," Mr. Venizelos said.
He reiterated that the government would examine any request by Mr. Yilmaz to visit Thrace "in the light of the experience from Mr. Aktuna's visit". Turkish Minister of State Yildirim Aktuna recently paid an unofficial three-day visit to Thrace, during which he made a series of provocative statements about the Moslem minority. His behaviour during the visit was strongly criticised by Athens.
"We now have the experience from the visit of Mr. Aktuna. When a request is made through diplomatic channels for a similar visit, it will be dealt with in the proper manner and bearing in mind what I said previously," the spokesman added.
Asked if he shared the view of main opposition New Democracy party leader Miltiades Evert that the greatest threat to Greece was "from the east", Mr. Venizelos said that "this is self-evident".
Mr. Evert told reporters Saturday that Turkey was making an effort "to shift its domestic problems towards Greece." "But it must realise," he said, "that Greece remains steadfast and that in order to achieve peaceful co-existence between the two peoples, the Turks must change their mentality and perception."
Greece said on Saturday that there appeared to be a slight improvement in statements made by Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia President Kiro Gligorov after meeting UN and US mediators on the Athens-Skopje dispute in Rome last week.
"Each time that (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia President) Kiro Gligorov and his cadres take a step away from intransigence, it is a positive step," government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos said on Saturday.
The spokesman made the statement when asked if there had been any change in Mr. Gligorov's stance following the Rome meeting with UN mediator Cyrus Vance and US presidential envoy on the Skopje issue Matthew Nimetz.
Mr. Venizelos said that Mr. Gligorov's statements after the meeting appeared to be "less intransigent" than those made shortly before the meeting.
Asked if the government was aware that Mr. Vance and Mr. Nimetz would meet Mr. Gligorov in Rome, the spokesman replied that "the Greek government knows that within the framework of his mandate, Mr. Vance is making continuous efforts to find a solution, and also that consultations presuppose contacts".