Egypt police on alert after Van Gogh security ‘facade’

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The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before in 1977 but was found the following year.
© AFP/HO/File -

  The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before in 1977 but was found the following year.
© AFP/HO/File -

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt said on Monday it has informed Interpol and placed its police on alert at the country’s entry and exit points to try to recover a Van Gogh stolen from a museum with a broken-down security system.

“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 informed Interpol of Saturday’s theft of the Dutch master’s “Poppy Flowers.”

“The robber will not be able to sell the painting,” he said in an interview with Al-Ahram daily.

A judicial source said the police arrested the head of the fine arts sector of the culture ministry, Mohsen Shaalan, three museum security guards and an official. They are charged with negligence.

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

With an estimated value of more than 50 million dollars, the latest theft took place in broad daylight from Cairo’s Mahmud Khalil museum after it was cut out of its frame.

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

“I did not imagine that it was possible to steal a painting from the Mahmud Khalil museum,” Hosni said. “The museum would have been closed if it had been known the warning system was not working,” he told Al-Ahram.

Hours after the theft, Hosni announced that the painting had been recovered but he later backtracked, blaming a subordinate for having passed on “inaccurate” information.

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,” Egypt’s prosecutor general 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 Egypt, newspapers said.