Egypt's culture minister has backtracked on a claim that two Italians were arrested with a stolen Van Gogh painting, blaming a subordinate for giving "inaccurate" information. "The information ... came from ... Mohsen Shaalan. Despite Shaalan receiving confirmation that the painting was retrieved, the information was inaccurate," the ministry said in a statement. The culture minister Farouq Hosni had earlier told AFP and Egypt's official MENA news agency that the work identified as Poppy Flowers and valued at more than $50 million, was found with two Italians in Cairo airport hours after its theft from a city museum on Saturday.
It was not immediately clear why the Italians were arrested and whether they had been freed. Mr Hosni had earlier said the museum, located in the middle and upperclass district of Dokki on the Nile and which has works by Monet, Renoir and Degas, was visited by only 10 people on Saturday. Italy's domestic ANSA news agency, citing what it called "information gathered at the scene", said the two Italians were young and had visited the museum with a group of Spanish and Russian tourists.
Mr Hosni's statement said "measures are still underway to uncover the circumstances of the incident and retrieve the painting." He also made a live statement by phone on Egyptian state television to set the record straight. Police officials questioned museum employees and visitors after the theft and reviewed security camera footage. A police official said thieves were expected to smuggle the painting outside the country.
Mr Shalaan, who had said that the painting was in the possession of police at Cairo airport, had meanwhile switched off his mobile phone and could not be reached for comment. Security officials also refused to comment on Hosni's statement. One official described the incident as "embarrassing and chaotic." Mr Hosni has earlier said the painting was cut out of its frame after the Mahmoud Khalil museum opened in the morning.
The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before in 1977, and was returned to the museum a decade later. The museum houses a collection of paintings which were owned by Mahmoud Khalil, a parliamentarian in the 1930s. *AFP