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Africa

Senior official arrested after Cairo art heist

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-08-24

Egypt has arrested the government's head of fine arts on charges of negligence and stepped up border security after a Van Gogh painting was stolen this weekend from a Cairo museum.

AFP - Egypt on Monday arrested a senior culture ministry official blamed for lax security at a museum from which a Van Gogh was stolen and also boosted security at the country's entry and exit points.

"The search is ongoing. We still haven't found the painting," Culture Minister Faruq Hosni told AFP.

"Police are on alert at the borders and the airports," he said, adding that the interior ministry had told Interpol of Saturday's theft of the painting which Hosni called "Poppy Flowers" and is also known as "Vase with Flowers."

A judicial source said police have arrested the head of the culture ministry's fine arts section, Mohsen Shaalan, three museum security guards and another official on charges of negligence.

The museum's woman director has been released on bail.

The investigation has found that Shaalan, who was deputised by Hosni to oversee the country's museum administration and finances, had failed to replace defunct surveillance cameras despite having the budget to do so, the official MENA news agency reported.

The painting, of yellow and red flowers in a vase, had been stolen before in 1977, but was recovered the following year.

A Van Gogh expert said the painting was one of 30 floral works made by the Dutch master in the summer of 1886, mainly in Paris.

"It is a typical example of those works," said Louis van Tilborgh, a researcher at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. "This is the beginning of Van Gogh becoming more colourful and therefore more modern.

"This is the beginning of Van Gogh as he is known," he added.

The painting, estimated to be worth more than 50 million dollars (more than 39 million euros), was stolen in broad daylight from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil museum after being cut from its frame.

It was displayed in a room with a work by Van Gogh's friend, Paul Gauguin.

Al-Ahram newspaper reported on Monday that the museum's security system had been out of order since December 2006.

A police official said the theft was discovered at around noon on Saturday when a group of Spanish visitors who went to the room where it was displayed alerted security.

Hours after the theft, Hosni announced that the painting had been recovered but he later backtracked, blaming a subordinate -- Shaalan -- for passing on "inaccurate" information.

The museum, now the scene of a crime investigation, had been days away from closing for renovation just before the theft, Hosni told AFP.

"The museum was due for closure in several days and its contents, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were going to be taken to the fine arts sector's safes," he said.

Prosecutor general Abdel Meguid Mahmud acknowledged on Sunday that security measures at the museum were "inadequate," branding them "a facade."

"There are 43 security cameras but only seven are working. Each painting is protected by an alarm but again, none are working," he told reporters.

Mahmud said the state prosecution had put out a call to increase security after nine paintings were stolen in March 2009 from Mohammed Ali Pasha's palace, a museum on the banks of the Nile in Cairo.

Egypt's antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, has been ordered to coordinate with the security services to have alarm systems checked at museums throughout the country, newspapers reported.

Hosni said his ministry planned to set up a control room in Cairo to oversee security in Egypt's museums. It would be run by Egyptian intelligence, he told MENA.

The theft has further embarrassed Hosni, whom critics have accused of negligence in the past.

He submitted his resignation in 2005 after a blaze killed 50 people in a theatre that was not in compliance with fire safety standards, but was kept on by President Hosni Mubarak.

Date created : 2010-08-24

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