Athens voiced “annoyance” with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the last-minute change of plans FILE PHOTO: Visitors view the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, January 9, 2023. © AFP / Daniel Leal

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has criticized his British counterpart after Downing Street axed a planned meeting in London, where the leader was expected to request the return of Greek antiquities held in UK museums.

Mitsotakis addressed the canceled talks while visiting the UK on Monday, lamenting the missed chance for dialogue while noting his country’s “well known” desire to reclaim ancient Parthenon sculptures kept by Britain.

“I [want to] express my annoyance at the fact that the British prime minister canceled our scheduled meeting a few hours before it was due to take place,” he said. “Whoever believes in the correctness and justice of his views is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

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The Greek PM was set to speak with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak following a meeting with Labour Party leaders on Monday, though the talks were scrapped with little notice. Mitsotakis’ aides called the move “wrong and undignified.” The Greek PM rejected an alternative meeting with the deputy prime minister, according to the BBC.

Officials traveling with Mitsotakis argued that the decision to cancel the meeting was linked to recent comments from the Greek leader to the BBC, in which he restated Athens’ longstanding demands for the return of the ancient artifacts. He added that the sculptures should be “reunited” with the Greek temples they were originally taken from, saying the division of the artwork between Greece and the UK was like “cutting the Mona Lisa in half.”

The 5th century marble antiques were removed from the Greek Parthenon temple in the early 1800s by British diplomat Lord Elgin, who served as the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which ruled over Greece at the time. They have remained in UK possession since, with most of the sculptures kept at the British Museum in London.

While unnamed sources on 10 Downing Street initially told the Guardian a scheduling conflict was to blame, the outlet reported that Mitsotakis’ remarks “seem to have irritated Sunak to the point that he had felt there was no reason to hold the talks.”

Publicly, a spokesperson for Sunak said the UK-Greece relationship is “hugely important,” but did not address the row over the 2,500-year-old antiquities.

Though Mitsotakis has repeatedly stressed the return of the treasures since taking office, Sunak has previously stated he would never support changes to 1963 legislation that bars the British Museum from ever handing over the ancient carvings. The Greek government first requested their return in 1983, but the UK has repeatedly declined, even rejecting an offer by the United Nations to mediate the dispute. (RT)