Kimberly P. Yow

Kimberly P. Yow

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Diplomatic spat over the Parthenon Marbles scuttles meeting of British and Greek leaders

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LONDON (AP) — A diplomatic spat erupted Monday between Greece and Britain after the U.K. canceled a planned meeting of their prime ministers, prompting the Greek premier to accuse his British counterpart of trying to avoid discussing the contested Parthenon Marbles.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is visiting London and had been expected to meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing St. on Tuesday. He was due to raise Greece’s decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures from the British Museum.

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Late Monday Mitsotakis issued a statement to “express my annoyance at the fact that the British prime minister has cancelled our planned meeting a few hours before it was due to take place.”

Greece and Britain are linked by traditional bonds of friendship, and the scope of our bilateral relations is very broad,” Mitsotakis said. “Greece’s positions on the matter of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart, together with the current major international challenges: Gaza, Ukraine, climate change and immigration. Whoever believes that his positions are well-founded and just is never afraid of engaging in a debate.”

Britain confirmed the two leaders would not meet and that Mitsotakis would hold talks with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.

Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. The sculptures, which originally adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries.

About half the surviving marble works are in London, and the rest in a purpose-built museum under the Acropolis in Athens. Appearing on British television Sunday, Mitsotakis compared the separation of the sculptures to cutting the Mona Lisa in half — a remark that annoyed the British government.

The British Museum is banned by law from giving the sculptures back to Greece, but its leaders have held talks with Greek officials about a compromise, such as a long-term loan.

But Sunak’s spokesman took a tough line Monday, saying the U.K. government had “no plans to change our approach, and certainly we think that the (British) museum is the right place” for the marbles.

“These were legally acquired at the time, they’re legally owned by the trustees of the museum. We support that position and there’s no plan to change the law which governs it,” said spokesman Max Blain.

“We have cared for the marbles for generations and our position is we want that to continue.”

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