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UK's PM cancels meeting with Greek PM in row over Parthenon sculptures

Updated 20:22, 28-Nov-2023

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused his British counterpart Rishi Sunak of cancelling a scheduled meeting in London on Tuesday in a diplomatic row over the status of the Parthenon Sculptures.

Greece has repeatedly asked the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

"I express my annoyance that the British Prime Minister cancelled our planned meeting just hours before it was due to take place," Mitsotakis said in a statement.

"Greece's positions on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart. Anyone who believes in the rightness and justice of his positions is never afraid of confronting arguments," he said.

Greek government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis said what Sunak had done is "unprecedented," adding that the move is not only disrespectful to the Greek Prime Minister, but also to the Greek people.

The Greek government has been in discussions with British Museum chair George Osborne on a possible loan deal for the sculptures, which have been a source of dispute between the two countries for centuries.

Mitsotakis complained in an interview with the BBC on Sunday that talks over a possible return of the sculptures to Athens were not advancing quickly enough.

He said that the continued presence of the sculptures in the British Museum was like cutting the "Mona Lisa in half" and it was not a question of ownership but "reunification."

A British government official, who asked not to be named, said the row over the marbles meant it was not suitable for the meeting to go ahead.

Earlier, a spokesperson for Sunak said there were no plans to return the sculptures.

Asked about Mitsotakis' statement, Sunak's office said Britain's relationship with Greece was "hugely important" and the two countries needed to work together on global challenges like tackling illegal migration.

British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was available to meet Mitsotakis to discuss these issues instead, Sunak's office said.

The British government has always ruled out giving up ownership of the marbles, which include about half of the 160-meter frieze that adorned the Parthenon, and says they were legally acquired.

A law prevents the British museum from removing objects from the collection apart from in certain circumstances, but the legislation does not prohibit a loan.

A meeting between Mitsotakis and the leader of the British opposition Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer went ahead on Monday as planned. The Financial Times last week reported that Starmer would not block a "mutually acceptable" loan deal for the sculptures.

Labour declined to comment.

(With input from Reuters)

(Cover: Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at the Global Investment Summit, at Hampton Court Palace, in East Molesey, Surrey, England, November 27, 2023. /CFP)

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