Greeks furious with Smith over decision to keep Marbles in UK

The Greek government will not abandon its aim of restoring the Elgin Marbles to Athens in spite of Labour's opposition.

So convinced were the Greeks that New Labour would despatch the marbles back to the Acropolis that Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek culture minister, wrote a letter asking for them within hours of Tony Blair's landslide victory.

Their hopes were soon dashed by Chris Smith, the new National Heritage Secretary, in an interview on BBC1's On the Record. He said Labour had examined the idea over the last five years and decided it was neither feasible nor sensible. The marbles were "wonderfully displayed" in the British Museum, where they were an "integral part" of the collections.

But yesterday, Mr Venizelos indicated that Athens would not be deterred. He will pursue the question with Mr Smith at a European Union meeting in Luxembourg on 30 June.

"The policy remains. It is something that will have to be discussed," he said.

Pressure to return the 5th century carvings has been exerted for many years.

The frieze and other parts of the Parthenon temple in Athens were taken by Lord Elgin in 1803, with the permission of the local Ottoman Turkish administrators, and were sold to the British Museum.

Mr Smith said millions of visitors from around the world came every year to see them and it would make no sense to split up the museum's collection.

"If you start embarking on questioning where particular works are located around the world then you get into all sorts of difficult areas of discussion," he said.

The commentators on Radio Athens were unimpressed. "Is this what the British Labourites mean by a more democratic and pro-European policy?" they asked. "They are no different from the Tories. The British will never change or abandon their imperial delusions."

Dr Nicos Papadakis, the press counsel for the Greek embassy in London, was more tactful. He said the issue was very difficult and delicate for both sides: "This is a fundamental pillar of our foreign policy. There has been a long-standing application for their return. Would you give up?"

Yet, there was a private suspicion in Greece that the issue had been raised too quickly and without due diplomatic protocol. "A rather tactless manoeuvre," said one British official.

The late Greek actress and culture minister, Melina Mercouri, spearheaded the campaign 15 years ago and was believed to have won the Labour Party's sympathy.

In 1984, several British actresses, including Dame Judi Dench, signed a petition of support. And in a telephone poll in 1995, following a Channel 4 film, 92,500 of the 100,000 callers backed the marbles' return.

They are not the only treasures in dispute, however. Other countries also have claims on gems stored in Britain.

Nigeria would like the Benin bronzes in the British Museum and Ghana has staked a claim to 19th-century royal regalia of the Ashanti people, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But it was recently reported that Egypt has dropped its demand for the return of treasures including the Rosetta Stone.

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