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Smith refuses to return Elgin Marbles

CHRIS SMITH warned yesterday that he would oppose any attempts to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

US President Bill Clinton was reported at the weekend to have called for Britain to return the 2,500-year-old sculptures to Athens but, during question time, the Secretary of State for Culture said they should stay in the British Museum The marbles, part of a frieze that once decorated the Parthenon, were brought from Greece in 1801 by the Earl of Elgin, the Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He had hoped to adorn his country home with them but financial difficulties forced him to sell them to the Government in 1816. Greece has disputed Britain's right to keep the marbles, but both the British Museum and the Government have remained firm on keeping them in London.

Greece hopes to see the return of the Marbles by 2004 when it hosts the Olympic Games and Greek officials said at the weekend that Mr Clinton had promised to support their claim after touring the Acropolis as part of a state visit. In the Commons, Robert Sheldon, the Labour MP for Ashton under Lyne and the chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, said that if it was possible to return the sculptures to the Parthenon itself "there would be a strong case there".

But Mr Sheldon added: "To transfer them from one museum to another museum, when they were effectively saved by bringing them into this country - will you make sure that any proposal of this kind is firmly opposed?"

Mr Smith replied: "I agree with you. The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum are visited, for free, by some six million people a year - people coming from all over the world to see these treasures. I believe they should stay that way."

Peter Ainsworth, the ToryCulture spokesman, said the Conservatives "fully endorsed the Government's robust policy" on the sculptures.

The marbles hit renewed controversy earlier this month when the British Museum announced plans to host fancy dress evenings around the exhibit for paying commercial customers. Greek scientists have also alleged that British archaeologists damaged the marbles beyond repair during a misguided attempt at restoration in the Thirties.