Six face trial in Norway for grave museum robbery

Six people will stand trial in Oslo in February accused of stealing "The Scream" and "Madonna" even though the two masterpieces by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch are still missing, prosecutors confirmed on Monday.

"The Oslo public prosecutor's office has ... charged five people with taking part in the robbery of the Munch Museum on August 22, 2004", prosecutor Terje Nyboe said in a statement. A sixth person was charged with receiving stolen goods.

In the robbery, two masked gunmen walked into the Munch Museum in Oslo past dozens of terrified tourists, pulled the pictures from the wall and drove off in a car driven by a third man before switching to another getaway car.

The pictures, both painted in 1893, have not been seen since. The main portion of the four-week trial is due to be heard in Oslo in mid-February 2006, the statement said.

Three of the six accused are already in police detention. The defendants face up to 17 years in jail if convicted. The statement did not give the names of those charged, in line with Norwegian practice.

"The Scream" shows a waif-like figure, hands clutching the head and mouth agape beneath a swirling blood-red sky. The painting has become an icon of angst for a world scarred by 20th century horrors from the atom bomb to the Holocaust.

"Madonna" shows a mysterious bare-breasted woman with long, flowing black hair. Both are too well known to be sold openly.

Theories about motives for the theft include an effort to divert police resources from investigating a bank robbery in April 2004 during which a policeman was shot dead. More than a dozen people are now on trial for the shooting and robbery.

Others speculate that the thieves wanted a ransom, or that a shadowy foreign collector commissioned the theft. There have been rumours that the works have been burnt, Reuters reports.

V.Y.