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Stolen paintings recovered in Ukraine return to Verona

Associated Press logo Associated Press 12/21/2016 By COLLEEN BARRY, Associated Press

VERONA, Italy (AP) — Italy's culture minister is returning home from Ukraine on Wednesday with 17 paintings, including works by Tintoretto, Rubens and Mantegna, stolen from a Verona museum in an audacious heist last year and later recovered by Ukrainian officials.

Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko handed over the paintings to Culture Minister Dario Franceschini in a ceremony in Kiev, saying "the theft of masterpiece paintings was akin to stealing part of the city's heart."

The paintings were recovered in May by Ukrainian border guards who intercepted an attempt to smuggle them from Ukraine to Moldova. The paintings were found hidden in plastic bags on a small island on the Dneister River, which runs between the two countries.

They were stolen in November 2015 when three armed robbers entered the Castelvecchio Museum, located in a medieval castle, at closing time just before the alarm system was activated. The robbers calmly removed the paintings before escaping in a security guard's car.

A guard at the museum, Pasquale Silvestri Riccardi, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison in a speedy trial earlier this month. Five others were also convicted, including Riccardi's Moldovan girlfriend, who received six years, and his twin brother, who was sentenced to eight months.

A video of the handover released by the culture ministry shows the works displayed in plain wooden frames, after their original frames went missing in the theft and transfer to Ukraine. Members of the Carabinieri art squad could be seen examining the paintings for damage, before they were wrapped in cloth to be crated and returned to Italy.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the return of the paintings is a "celebration for Verona and all of Italy."

The paintings are scheduled to be shown together at their home in the Castelvecchio Museum from Friday, before being returned to their former spots after the holidays.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

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