Egypt breaks ties with France's Louvre Museum
FP/File – Egyptian and French archaeologists visiting the Karnak temple site in Luxor. Egypt has announced that …

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt announced on Wednesday that it has cut all cooperation with France's Louvre Museum until it secures the return of "stolen" Pharaonic relics in the latest row involving the exhibits of a major European institution.

"We made the decision to end any cooperation with the Louvre until they return" the works, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told AFP.

He alleged that the renowned Paris museum bought the antiquities in 1980 even though its curators knew they were stolen.

"The purchase of stolen steles is a sign that some museums are prepared to encourage the destruction and theft of Egyptian antiquities," he said.

French sources said that the antiquities Egypt was demanding are decorative fragments from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand pledged that France is ready to return the relics to Egypt if the Pharaonic antiquities at the Louvre Museum are indeed stolen.

Mitterrand said he has convened a meeting for Friday of a special commission that is empowered to rule on restitution, according to a culture ministry statement on Wednesday.

"The minister is ready, if the commission were to issue a favourable ruling, to implement provisions of the UNESCO convention and restitute the relics to the Egyptian authorities without delay," the statement said.

A member of the Louvre's executive said it is open to the idea of returning the works, which are on display in its galleries, but that the decision is not the museum's alone.

Related article: France wants to end row

"In order to return the works, we would need the agreement of the National Scientific Commission for the Museum Collections of France," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Egypt's decision to suspend cooperation will affect conferences organised with the museum, as well as work carried out by the Louvre on the Pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo.

Hawass said it had been taken two months ago, implying that it had nothing to do with Egyptian unhappiness over the defeat of Culture Minister Faruq Hosni in the race to become the new director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) last month.

A French source said the atmosphere created by Hosni's defeat "doesn't help," but insisted that "there is no real obstacle and a solution should be found soon."

A number of the world's most famous museums have collections of Egyptian antiquities, many of them acquired during British colonial rule.

But in recent years the Egyptian authorities have been increasingly vociferous in campaigning for the return of important works.

In 2007, French authorities returned to Egypt an ancient pharaoh's hairs that were nearly sold on the Internet by a French postal worker whose father had acquired them during the scientific examination of the royal mummy 30 years previously.

The case prompted Egyptian authorities to bar foreign scientists from examining royal mummies.

Egypt has also long demanded the return from Berlin of a bust of the legendary Queen Nefertiti that was discovered on the banks of the Nile by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in December 1912.

The case mirrors that of the so-called Elgin Marbles, the decorative frieze that used to adorn the Parthenon in Athens whose return by the British Museum in London Greece has long demanded.