Chief Egypt archaeologist defends Louvre cut move

CAIRO – Egypt's decision to cut ties with the Louvre museum had nothing to do with the loss last month in the country's bid to head the Paris-based UNESCO, the country's chief archaeologist said Thursday.

Zahi Hawass of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said the spat with the Louvre started eight months ago, when the Paris museum refused to return painted wall fragments of a 3,200-year-old tomb from near the ancient temple city of Luxor.

Hawass has been pushing to reclaim what he says are antiquities stolen from the country and purchased by some of the world's leading museums.

On Wednesday, he announced his council would no longer work with the Louvre, threatening the Paris museum's work in Egypt. The Louvre's excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo, was immediately suspended, and a lecture in Egypt by a former curator of the museum was canceled.

Within hours of the announcement, the Louvre said a national committee would take up the matter to decide whether to return the artifacts.

Elaborating on his decision, Hawass on Thursday issued a statement saying the severance of ties with the Louvre was unrelated to the failure of Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny to get the top post at the United Nation's culture agency.

Hosny, a painter who has been Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, was initially seen as the front-runner for the UNESCO job, which would have made him the first Arab to hold the position.

But his campaign faltered over controversy about a comment he made in parliament in 2008 promising to burn any Israeli books in Egyptian libraries.

Hosny had made the comment apparently trying to defend himself against charges by Egyptian lawmakers that he was soft on Israel. Trying to save his UNESCO campaign, Hosny wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde that the comment was made without "intention or premeditation" and should be viewed in the context of his indignation at the suffering of the Palestinian people.

He eventually lost the UNESCO bid to Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, who was chosen in a vote at the organization's Paris headquarters on Sept. 22.

Hosny's loss was a big disappointment for Egypt, where the minister's supporters proclaimed him a victim of a Jewish conspiracy aiming to undermine their country. Hosny himself sought to portray his defeat as a global reaction to his stance against normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel.

Hawass' statement Thursday was the second time he sought to distance himself from the Hosny-UNESCO affair. On Aug. 20, Hawass unveiled restoration work at one Egypt's most famous synagogues, denying at the time it meant to assuage Jewish anger at the country's culture minister.