Picture: John Kolesidis / Reuters

Athens - Greece was set on Thursday for a milestone return to bond markets with a five-year debt sale which also sends a major signal that the eurozone debt crisis is fading.

The debt issue comes four years after Greece was rescued from impending bankruptcy and was frozen out of borrowing normally.

Hours before the sale, a powerful car bomb exploded outside the Bank of Greece in central Athens but nobody was hurt as police had time to clear the area.

A return to borrowing on the bond markets represents an important milestone in Greece's financial resurrection after two EU-IMF bailouts.

The bond sale, timed a day before a scheduled visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is designed to raise 2.5 billion euros ($3.6 billion) according to the finance ministry.

But according to reports, offers of some 17 billion euros from lenders have already accrued for Thursday's issue.

The last issue of five-year bonds four years ago had an interest rate of 6.1 percent, but experts believe that Greece might pay investors a rate of return as low as 5.0 percent this time.

Athens' move was welcomed by the IMF, which along with the European Union and the European Central Bank has provided monetary support for the troubled economy.

The government condemned the car bomb attack, with state spokesman Simos Kedikoglou telling Skai Radio: “The terrorists aim to change the agenda. We will not allow that.”

The vehicle, a stolen Nissan packed with 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of explosives, blew up around 04:55 SA time as it was parked on the pavement facing a central bank building near headquarters, police said.

The car was almost entirely destroyed by the explosion, TV footage showed, and debris and broken glass was scattered across a wide radius, an AFP reporter on the scene said.

Internet news website Zougla and the Efymerida ton Syndakton newspaper were informed of the planned attack by telephone one hour beforehand.

Athens found itself frozen out of debt markets in 2010 after it revealed its public accounts had been falsified, and was forced to seek a bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avoid defaulting.

In return for the bailout funds, Greece has had to institute a host of deeply unpopular reforms including streamlining its bloated public sector, moves that have sparked regular strikes and protests in a country suffering a sixth straight year of recession and with a staggering 28-percent unemployment rate.

The announcement of the return to debt markets came on the same day as protesters launched the first anti-austerity strike of 2014, following five general strikes the previous year.

The strike shut ferry services to the country's world-famous islands, disrupted air travel and closed pharmacies and government offices.

The so-called “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF first bailed out Greece in 2010 with a programme worth 110 billion euros.

When that failed to stabilise the economy, they agreed a much tougher second rescue in 2012 worth 130 billion euros, plus a private-sector debt write-off of more than 100 billion euros.

Fiscal reform under EU-IMF tutelage has brought upgrades to Greece's debt standing by ratings agencies in recent months - but Greek bonds still carry junk status.

The 2012 debt haircut traumatised many investors at the time, and some were unimpressed with Thursday's sale.

“Given its low rating, regardless of the pricing level, we're not intending to participate,” said Joszef Szabo, Head of Global Macro at Aberdeen Asset Management. - Sapa-AFP