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Russia

Merkel attends Russia art exhibition amid row

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has attended a major art exhibition in Russia amid a row over stolen works. Earlier, Merkel's spokesman said the event had been canceled and the art should be returned to Germany.

The art exhibition in St. Petersburg Friday evening contained a number of treasures taken after the Second World War, including 600 works from Germany, Merkel said.

"We believe that these items should come back to Germany," Merkel said while touring the exhibit at the city's State Hermitage Museum.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying the "average citizen does not care where these items are displayed - in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow or Turkey."

Uncertain event

Hours earlier, Merkel's staff had said the event was canceled because Putin had no time to attend. However, there had been indications that the chancellor pulled out because of her demands the art be returned to Germany.

At a joint press conference with Putin during the day, Merkel said their disagreements had been solved "as a result of a conversation between the president and me."

Putin denied there was a disagreement with Merkel, saying "we did not cancel anything." He said there had simply been questions about the event's timing and that the disagreement about the art "never existed."

The Russian president stressed that the custody of the art in question was a "sensitive" topic that needed a solution.

"It's a very sensitive question for the civil society of both sides, I think," Putin said. "Therefore, if we want to have some kind of movement forward, we shouldn't inflate the problem but search for some path to resolution."

Controversial exhibition

The exhibition - featuring some 1,700 items spanning the three-millenia Bronze Age - is a cooperative venture between the Hermitage and numerous museums in Moscow and Berlin.

St. Petersburg is Russia's second largest city. Next year, it marks the 70th anniversary of the end of blockade of then-Leningrad by former Nazi German forces during WWII, during which many residents died of starvation.

Germany has long sought the return of 600 so-called "looted" artworks, citing international law, but Russia has refused, arguing that the treasures were paid for with heavy loss of life among Soviet soldiers.

dr/kms (dpa, AP)