HOORN , Netherlands, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Law enforcement officials say Ukrainian ultra-nationalists are behind the theft of dozens of paintings and silverware from a Dutch museum, which are being ransomed for nearly $55 million.
Twenty-four paintings by Dutch artists of the 17th and 18th century, and 70 pieces of antique silverware were stolen in 2005 from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, near Amsterdam. Members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a paramilitary group opposing Russia's incursion into eastern Ukraine, recently presented evidence it had the cache of artworks. The group said it would return the items under conditions which included the payment of $54.9 million, the museum said in a statement.
It is alleged that Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, former Ukrainian Security Service chief, and Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of the right-wing Svoboda party in Ukraine, are implicated in the ransom demand, suggesting OUN has, museum representative Arthur Brand said, connections at "the very top political level."
Nalyvaichenko has denied involvement.
"The Dutch side raised the issue during the visit of the Ukrainian President to Netherlands. Our Ministry of Interior is working on this," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Tuesday, adding he is worried the incident, prior to an April 6, 2016, referendum on Ukrainian association with the European Union, could "spoil our image."
Klimkin said the museum initiated negotiations with the alleged art thieves prior to consulting either government, possibly complicating the search for the paintings.
"We have done all we can, but we've reached a dead end," Museum Director Ad Geerdink said in a statement on the museum website. "The artworks risk disappearing from view once more, and we are sounding the alarm."
He also told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, "Our collection is in the hands of corrupt people, deep in the heart of the Ukrainian political elite. They refuse to give back these paintings and want only one thing, to earn illicit money from our cultural heritage."
The work of Dutch painters Jan van Goyen, Hendrick Bogaert, Floris van Schooten and Jacob Waben are among the stolen paintings.