Germany pleads forgiveness for Greek Nazi massacre

LIGIADES (AFP) - German President Joachim Gauck on Friday solemnly asked Greece to forgive Germany for a heinous Nazi crime committed at the height of World War II, while carefully dismissing calls for reparations.

Mr Gauck visited the scene of the tragedy in the hills of northern Greece, accompanied by his counterpart Karolos Papoulias, the 84-year-old veteran of the Greek resistance and a native of the region.

"With shame and suffering, I ask for forgiveness on behalf of Germany from the families of victims," Mr Gauck said during the visit to the village of Ligiades, near the border with Albania.

A monument at the site immortalises the October 1943 massacre, where machine-gun toting Nazis mowed down 80 civilians, including dozens of children, in reprisal for attacks by the Greek resistance on German targets.

"I bow before the victims of this monstrous crime," Mr Gauck said, "with the commitment to express what the crime's authors and many post-war leaders did not want to say: What happened was a brutal injustice."

Gauck's two-day visit to recession-wracked Greece has been a sensitive one, with many Greeks still furious at Germany's perceived role in imposing draconian austerity measures in return for two bailouts.

At the height of the debt crisis, a wide spectrum of political leaders in Greece said Berlin owed Athens a huge debt for the violence and damage inflicted during war.

One official report even said Germany owed Greece a debt of 162 billion euros (S$284 billion).

But on Thursday, the first day of his visit, Mr Gauck said legal avenues for Greece to call for more payouts were closed, repeating a German mantra made ever since reparations were finalised immediately following the war.

In his meetings with ministers Thursday, Mr Gauck said he had "a profound respect" for the "heavy burden" carried by the Greeks during the crisis and the subsequent waves of austerity measures.

In an effort to avoid Greek anger from disrupting the visit by Mr Gauck, on Thursday protests were banned in downtown Athens.

Construction workers tried to defy the measure and attempted to approach the government district surrounding Syntagma Square, but were quickly rebuffed by riot police.