IMF's Lagarde 'regrets' Greece remarks 'caused offense'

The IMF said Thursday that its chief Christine Lagarde regrets upsetting Greeks in remarks she made contrasting Greece's plight with that of poorer Africans.

But as Greeks vented anger online, including in a popular Facebook website titled "Greeks are against Lagarde," the International Monetary Fund did not repudiate her criticisms of the country, especially those saying Greeks needed to pay their taxes.

"She said she regrets her remarks were misunderstood and caused offense. That was not her intention," IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters.

"The managing director and the Fund have always said that we have great respect for Greece and the Greek people and the sacrifices many are making to overcome the economic crisis. As you know, over the past few years the IMF has made great efforts to help support Greece and tackle this crisis."

Greeks were outraged by an interview with Lagarde published by the British newspaper The Guardian last Friday, in which she said Greeks must "help themselves collectively" by all paying taxes.

Asked whether it was "payback time" for Greece and other debt-ridden eurozone economies, she was quoted as saying: "That's right."

She then added that she thinks more about poor Africans than struggling Greeks, who are the recipients of one of the IMF's largest-ever rescue loans, which comes with grueling reform conditions.

"I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens," she told the newspaper.

Lagarde's comments have fed into the ongoing election campaign -- the second in six weeks -- as Athens struggles to form a cohesive government that can deal clearly with the country's economic crisis.

Political leaders and thousands of Internet users have criticized the IMF chief for branding Greeks tax-dodgers, using the issue as they seek votes in the June 17 election.

The 130 billion euro ($161 billion US) IMF-EU bailout for Greece, with its tough austerity conditions, remains a key focus of the polls. Some Greek politicians have advocated dropping the loan program, which could force the country into defaulting on hundreds of billions of euros in loans and leaving the eurozone.

The IMF side of the program remains on hold, with the May 31 target date for the second release from that loan, 1.6 billion euros to help the country maintain a fiscal balance, passing Thursday without any action.

The release must come after a program review by an IMF mission, which is also on hold for the polls.

"There won't be a new mission until after the elections and a new government is formed," Rice said Thursday.

Rice added that the IMF "remains fully committed" to supporting Greece.

"We continue to believe that if all players fulfill their responsibilities and the right policies are implemented, Greece can overcome this situation and build a better future."