By LLAZAR SEMINI, Associated Press
TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian police have seized more than 1,000 religious and secular pieces of art dating from the 15th to the mid-20th century that were stolen from churches and cultural centers in Albania and neighboring Macedonia.
Prime Minister Edi Rama, who began his career as an artist, inspected the works and praised police for recovering them.
The thefts involved 1,077 icons, frescoes and other pieces, and two men suspected of planning to sell them abroad were arrested, a police statement said Wednesday.
After a four-month investigation, the works were found in two houses in the capital, Tirana, where the arrests took place late Tuesday. Officials did not provide an estimate of the items' value.
Culture Ministry spokeswoman Milena Selimi said the looted art was probably headed for sale in other Balkan countries or in Western Europe.
The recovered works were being kept at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, where experts will examine them and restore damaged ones.
Cultural authorities say much of the country's religious heritage remains at risk due to limited resources in a country where religion was banned for decades under communism.
Rama urged Albanians to help stop the plundering of religious icons.
"What little we have we must protect," said Rama, himself a painter. He made his name in politics as a mayor of Tirana who led a campaign to paint the drab apartment block facades with bright colors.
"If we lose this wealth, our history will vanish with it."