By Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout and Renee Maltezzo
(Reuters) – A dispute between Britain and Greece over the ownership of Parthenon sculptures escalated on Tuesday, with both sides exchanging blame for the cancellation of a planned meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceled Tuesday’s meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. After both sides agreed not to use the meeting as a public forum to “re-litigate issues that were resolved a long, long time ago.”
A Greek government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no such agreement existed. Earlier, a Greek government spokesman said the cancellation was unprecedented and disrespectful.
“It is simply the case that if commitments are made and not met, there will be consequences,” Sunak’s spokesman told reporters.
Greece has repeatedly asked the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elkin removed from the Parthenon when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.
About half of the surviving marble works are in London, the rest in a museum below the Acropolis in Athens.
In an interview with the BBC over the weekend, Mitsotakis compared the dismantling of the sculptures to cutting the Mona Lisa in half, a move rejected by the British government.
Both Britain and Greece have said the dispute has undermined opportunities to discuss global issues including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, migration and the climate crisis.
However, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis later said his country did not want to escalate the dispute or damage relations between the countries.
Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting was criticized by some British opposition parties and a campaign group backed by British politicians from various parties who want to resolve the issue.
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