Egypt announced on Wednesday that it has cut all cooperation with France's Louvre Museum until it secures the return of "stolen" Pharaonic antiquities in the latest row involving the exhibits of a major European institution.
Hours after the announcement, the Louvre said it was open to the idea of returning Pharaonic steles, which Egypt has alleged the museum bought despite knowing they were stolen.
"We made the decision to end any cooperation with the Louvre until they return" the works, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told AFP.
He charged that the renowned Paris museum had 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," Hawass said.
The decision to suspend cooperation will affect conferences organized with the museum, as well as work carried out by the Louvre on the Pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo.
French sources said that the antiquities Egypt was demanding were decorative fragments from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, which had been acquired in a "transparent" manner by the Louvre.
"Everyone is working to try and make it possible to return the pieces to Cairo once a legal framework has been found," one French source said.
Hawass said the decision to cut ties 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 U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last month.
The 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.