U.S. praises Greek role in strategic energy projects

ATHENS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Greece on Friday for embracing strategic energy projects that will lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and voiced support for its economic reforms as it grapples with debt and refugee crises.

Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos looks on during an interview with Reuters at his office in the ministry in Athens, Greece, December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Kerry addressed the economic, security and migration challenges facing Greece during a half-day visit in which he made time to stuff a backpack with toys, clothes and school supplies for refugee children fleeing Syria’s civil war.

“The United States is enthusiastic about Greece’s growing role in European energy security, which is in the end a major strategic interest that we share,” he said at a news conference with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.

“We applaud the Greek government for moving forward on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline and the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector.”

Those planned gas links would lessen Italy’s and Bulgaria’s dependence on Russia as an energy provider.

They are part of a geopolitical tug-of-war to keep Greece in the Western energy orbit. Leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras raised eyebrows in Washington earlier this year when he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on joining Russian pipeline projects.

Among those was the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, now on hold, that has been conceived as an alternative to the South Stream project that Moscow scrapped in December.

Kerry also said Washington wanted to do what it could to help Greece emerge from its economic crisis and offered warm words for Tsipras’ efforts to revive the economy despite scepticism among some EU governments that Athens will keep its promises on debt and reform.

“I appreciate the way in which you have been approaching the economic reform effort and the challenges of the debt,” he told Tsipras earlier, at the start of their meeting.

“It’s not easy, and we want to try to be as helpful as we can to see Greece come out of this,” he added.

Kerry began his short stay in Athens by visiting a network for migrant women in Greece, called Melissa, which is involved in helping some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees who have streamed through Greece this year.

Standing with members of the group, Kerry stuffed a small blue bag with items designed to bring comfort to refugee children, including gloves, hats, scarves, toys and stuffed animals.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Andrew Roche