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Wednesday, March 11, 1998 Published at 17:10 GMT

image: [ BBC Despatches ]Frances Kennedy

Italian navy minesweepers are to be called into action to hunt for archaeological treasures following the recovery of an important Hellenic statue by fishermen off the Sicilian coast. The cultural heritage minister, Walter Veltroni, says that under a special accord with the navy, minesweepers will be used as 'statue-sweepers'. Frances Kennedy sent this report from Rome:

The recovery of part of a splendid bronze, thought to represent Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds, is a reminder that Italy's immense cultural heritage extends to below the seas. The 1.7-metre high statue was found at a depth of some 400 metres off the coast between Sicily and Tunisia.

It's already being compared to the Riace Bronzes, two priceless Greek warrior statues picked up off the Calabrian coast some years ago. Walter Veltroni, Italy's dynamic cultural heritage minister, says navy boats will be used for submarine treasure hunts right along Italy's coast, using the technology developed for detecting mines.

He said he would also be seeking accords with neighbouring Greece and Tunisia for joint archaeological patrols. Details of how many of Italy's twelve minesweepers will be deployed where and when have still to be finalised.

It's the first time they've had an explicit remit to seek out shipwrecks, though they have traced them while carrying out other duties. Minister Veltroni said the navy ships would also be sent to the site where the Aeolus statue was discovered to prevent booty hunters from moving in.

The statue is missing two arms and a leg, and it's believed the figure may have been part of a group. It's estimated that many of the treasures on the trading ships that once plied the Mediterranean have already been plundered.

There's a thriving black market in antiquities, and once an artefact has left Italy, it's almost impossible for the state to get it back.

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