KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The 17 precious paintings stolen from a museum in Verona, Italy, including works by Tintoretto, Rubens and Mantegna, have been recovered by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies in what the nation's president hailed Wednesday as a "brilliant operation."
President Petro Poroshenko said the recovery of the stolen art estimated to be worth more than 16 million euros ($18.3 million) had demonstrated Ukraine's efficient fight against art smuggling.
Ukrainian border guards found the stolen paintings hidden in plastic bags in a cache on a small island on the Dniester River between Ukraine and Moldova.
The paintings were stolen from Verona's Castelvecchio museum last November. Three masked armed men entered the museum in a medieval castle after it closed and just before its alarm system was activated. They tied up a security guard and a cashier, quickly took the paintings from the walls and got away in the security guard's car.
In March, the Italian authorities announced the arrest of 13 suspects in the case in Italy and the ex-Soviet nation of Moldova. They included the Italian guard on duty when the robbery took place and his twin brother along with the brother's Moldovan wife, who were arrested in Italy.
Investigators had analyzed 4,000 hours of video and hundreds of phone calls to identify the suspects. In intercepted phone calls, the thieves congratulated themselves, calling the heist "a big hit," and saying they would have to wait a few months before trying to offload such valuable paintings.
Ukrainian Border Guard agency said the paintings had been mailed from Moldova to Ukraine's Odessa border region and kept there by members of a criminal group that included citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and Russia.
"We have not only preserved the global value of these paintings, but also reaffirmed Ukraine's prestige by such efficient actions," Poroshenko said.
He ordered his government to invite Italian officials and experts in to authenticate the paintings and formalize their handover.