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Greece to formally assume EU rotating presidency

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Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, right, listens to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso during the take over ceremony of the six-month rotation of the Greek EU Presidency at Zappeion Hall in Athens, on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Aris Messinis, Pool)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Authorities shut down roads and deployed riot police in central Athens Wednesday as Greece prepared to formally assume the European Union's rotating six-month presidency with a ceremony to be attended by EU commissioners.

Events kicked off in the early afternoon with a visit by the commissioners, led by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, to the capital's Zappeion conference center, ahead of the evening opening ceremony to be held at the Athens Concert Hall.

A subway station near the concert hall was to close for several hours ahead of the ceremony, while a helicopter hovered overhead as Prime Minister Antonis Samaras showed Barroso and the other commissioners around Zappeion. More than 2,000 police were on duty for the events.

A left-wing group has vowed to defy an 18-hour ban on protests in the city center, calling for a rally in central Athens shortly before the official ceremony is due to begin.

Alexis Tsipras, head of the main opposition radical left Syriza party, has said he will not attend the events, drawing criticism from the governing two-party coalition.

Financially crippled Greece has been surviving on rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010, and the harsh austerity imposed in return for the bailout has led to deep resentment among many Greeks.

Athens hopes to emerge from a grueling six-year recession during its presidency, and negotiate a landmark deal with bailout creditors to make its massive national debt sustainable.

It has said it aims to focus its presidency on the issues of unemployment, economic growth and the EU's migration policy, all issues that affect Greece arguably more than any other country in the bloc.

Greece's financial crisis has proved to be the most severe in the EU, and unemployment still hovers around 27 percent. The country's eastern borders are a major crossing point for migrants attempting to enter the EU illegally, and Greece has frequently called for a more cohesive and fair European policy to tackle migration.