ATHENS/LONDON (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused his British counterpart Rishi Sunak of canceling a meeting scheduled in London on Tuesday amid 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 in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Mitsotakis said in a statement: “I express my annoyance that the British Prime Minister canceled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was scheduled to take place.”
He said, “Greece’s positions on the issue of the Parthenon statues are well known. I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart. Anyone who believes in the validity and justice of his positions is never afraid to face arguments.” .
The Greek government is in discussions with the head of the British Museum, George Osborne, about 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 about the possible return of the sculptures to Athens were not progressing quickly enough.
He said that the continued presence of the sculptures in the British Museum was like cutting the “Mona Lisa in two” and that it was not a matter of ownership but “reunification.”
A British government official, who requested to remain anonymous, said that the dispute over the marbles meant it was inappropriate to hold the meeting.
Earlier, a spokesman for Sunak said there were no plans to return the sculptures.
In response to a question about Mitsotakis’ statement, Sunak’s office said that Britain’s relationship with Greece was “extremely important” and that the two countries needed to work together to confront global challenges such as tackling illegal immigration.
Sunak’s office said British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was prepared to meet Mitsotakis to discuss these issues instead.
The British government has always ruled out giving up ownership of the marble sculptures, which include about half of the 160-meter (525-foot) frieze that adorns the Parthenon, and says that they were obtained legally.
The law prevents the British Museum from removing objects from the collection except in certain circumstances, but the legislation does not prohibit lending.
A meeting between Mitsotakis and British opposition leader Keir Starmer on Monday went as planned. The Financial Times reported last week that Starmer would not block a “mutually acceptable” loan deal for the sculptures.
The Labor Party declined to comment.
Reported by René Maltezo. Edited by Angus MacSwan and Stephen Coates
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