Kiev opens probe into Dutch art reportedly held by Ukrainian fighters

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine on Tuesday launched a probe into precious Dutch paintings that were reportedly being held by a volunteer battalion fighting pro-Russian insurgents in the east of the ex-Soviet state.

Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the case was "very important" for both countries in the runup to an April 6 Dutch referendum on whether to approve Ukraine's new free trade and political association agreement with the EU.

Ukraine's assistant prosecutor general Vladyslav Kutsenko told AFP that he had issued an order for "checks and the required investigation" to be conducted in the dispute.

The Westfries Museum in Hoorn said on Monday that two dozen 17th-century paintings that went missing a decade ago had been found in a villa in a Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbass -- a splintered war zone that is partially run by pro-Russian rebels.

Two men claiming to represent the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists battalion now fighting the separatists came to the Dutch embassy in Kiev and showed a picture of one of the stolen works, the Westfries Museum said.

Dutch media said the men had initially demanded a payment of 50 million euros ($54 million) for the paintings' return.

They later reduced that sum to 500,000 euros after Dutch art historian Arthur Brand called the initial price put on the works as "totally unrealistic".

The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists denied holding the works as ransom shortly after the Dutch press reports appeared.