A dispute over ancient German treasure looted by Soviet troops at the end of World War II overshadowed a visit by Angela Merkel to Russia yesterday.
The German chancellor and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, were due to open an exhibition at St Petersburg's Hermitage museum last night.
But earlier in the day a German government spokesman had suggested that the dispute meant a speech due to be delivered by Mrs Merkel at the event had been cancelled. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a hoard of 81 ancient gold pieces including plates, rings and ornate bowls that has not been seen in public since the end of the war.
The Eberswalde Hoard, discovered during an excavation north-east of Berlin in 1913, was removed from a museum in the German capital by Soviet troops and transported to Moscow as war booty.
George Streiter, the German government spokesman, said Mrs Merkel had planned to use her speech to call for the return of the art in accordance with international law. Mr Streiter said Russia had cancelled the opening speeches by the two leaders, blaming time constraints.
Last night Mr Putin played down the claims that the event was to be cancelled. "We were taking into account whether we will have enough time for the visit," he said. "Now that we have checked the timing with the chancellor we understood we have time."
For decades, Germany has demanded the return of the hoard, regarded as one of the most important discoveries from the Bronze Age. (© Daily Telegraph, London)