Merkel did not push referendum idea, says witness

German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Greek President Karolos Papoulias what he thought of the idea of holding a referendum on Greek membership in the euro but did not push it, a journalist who said he overheard their conversation wrote on Saturday.

A Greek government spokesman said Merkel raised the idea in a telephone call on Friday but Berlin swiftly denied that.

The incident reignited anti-Merkel sentiment in debt-laden Greece where many accuse the German leader of exacerbating the crisis by being slow to act and then demanding austerity measures that are too tough.

A Merkel spokeswoman said on Saturday there was «no truth to reports» the German leader urged Greece to hold a referendum but declined to give details of what had been discussed.

Paul Ronzheimer, a reporter with Germany's Bild newspaper, wrote on Saturday that he was in the same room as Papoulias in Athens just as he took the call from Merkel.

Ronzheimer said he heard Papoulias speaking fluent German to Merkel as they discussed the idea. He did not specify if he had overheard Merkel's side of the conversation as well.

"She wanted to talk to him about a possible referendum on the euro - the idea came up a few days ago from a meeting of European Union finance ministers,» wrote Ronzheimer, who was accompanying European Parliament President Martin Schulz to the meeting with Papoulias, in a report published on Saturday.

"Merkel wanted to know what Papoulias thought of the idea - he rejected it,» the Bild journalist wrote.

German officials have said Merkel conveyed her hope for a functioning government in Greece after repeat elections on June 17. Germany is the largest single contributor to the Greek rescue efforts. [Reuters]