Russian foreign minister in Athens

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Greece's prime minister Wednesday at the start of an official visit expected to focus on energy and Athens' ambitious but slow-moving privatization program.

Lavrov also was to meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos as Greece prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January.

Greece has backed an energy project, known as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Azerbaijan over its territory and neighboring Albania to Italy, in competition with current Russian-dominated networks.

Crisis-hit Greece, in its sixth year of recession, also is struggling to raise support from international investors to buy former state-run companies and utilities. Russian companies have reportedly expressed interest in Greek plans to privatize its railways.

"We sympathize with the efforts of your government to overcome some difficulties in the economy," Lavrov said during his meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, according to a transcript of the conversation released by Samaras' office. "We take note of the progress and would be supporting your efforts in whatever way we can," including promoting trade and economic cooperation.

Lavrov also said Russian tourists were traveling to Greece in ever increasing numbers, with the figure expected to reach 1 million visitors this year. Tourism is a major industry in Greece, and the country has welcomed a boom in the number of foreign visitors over this year's summer season.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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