AUSTRALIAN PM SUPPORTS GREEK CALLS FOR BRITAIN TO RETURN PARTHENON MARBLES

CANBERRA, Australia: The prime ministers of Australia and Greece united Wednesday in calling for the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

Kostas Karamanlis this week became the first Greek prime minister to visit Australia.

In a joint news conference with Karamanlis, Prime Minister John Howard revealed he had been lobbying British counterpart Tony Blair to return the ancient sculptures and artifacts which were removed from the Parthenon 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which then ruled Greece.

"I have on a number of occasions raised the issue in discussions I've had with the British prime minister stretching back some years," Howard told reporters.

"But ultimately, it is a matter that is a bilateral one between Greece and the United Kingdom," he added.

Karamanlis did not directly answer when asked by a reporter whether he wanted Australia to do more to help Greece in its long-standing battle to have the artifacts returned.

"We will not spare any effort to communicate to all our friends in government and also all the people to join the voices which would lead to a solution that's satisfactory," Karamanlis said, referring the 50 percent of the Parthenon collection now held by the British Museum.

The Australian and Greek prime ministers signed an agreement Wednesday allowing tens of thousands of Greeks who migrated to Australia to claim Australian old-age pensions if they return to their homeland.

The British Museum says on its Web site that a British parliamentary inquiry found the artifacts had been legitimately acquired by Elgin as a private individual.

The British Museum bought the collection in 1816 and British law prevents the museum from permanently disposing of the artifacts, it said.