By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) -Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Wednesday dismissed reports of an imminent repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures known in Britain as the Elgin marbles.
Britain and Greece recently began fresh talks over a possible deal to end the long-running dispute. Greece has repeatedly asked the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
In a televised meeting with President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, conservative premier Mitsotakis, whose term ends in July, said he hopes to achieve the repatriation if he wins a second term.
"I don't expect immediate results but I believe that we have already moved very systematically," Mitsotakis said.
"If the Greek people trust us again, I believe we could achieve this target after the elections."
Greece has accused Lord Elgin of theft and does not recognise the British Museum as owner of the sculptures.
The Parthenon, which is on the Acropolis in Athens, was completed in the fifth century B.C. as a temple to the goddess Athena and its decorative friezes contain some of the greatest examples of ancient Greek sculpture.
The British Museum has always rejected returning the parts in its collection, which include about half of the 160 metre (525 ft) frieze that adorned the Parthenon. The museum maintains they were acquired legally, citing British laws which prevent removing objects from the collection apart from in certain circumstances.
However, recent news reports in both countries said an agreement between Athens and the museum was close to allow the sculptures to be returned as part of an exchange deal or loan programme.
Mitsotakis also said on Wednesday that Greece wants the antiquities returned so that "not only we, Greeks, but everyone, including our visitors, see and enjoy this universal monument in its entirety, in its natural space, which is none other than the Acropolis Museum".
British culture minister Michelle Donelan told BBC Radio on Wednesday the Parthenon marbles belong in the UK and that returning them would "open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums."
Many countries have pressured British institutions to return looted artefacts, especially given that the British Museum only displays about 1% of its collection.
"Actually they do belong here in the UK, where we've cared for them for a great deal of time, where we've allowed access to them," Donelan said.
(Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas; Additional reporting by Muvija M in London; Editing by David Goodman and Josie Kao)