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Sunday, May 17, 1998 Published at 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK


Smuggling threatens Cambodia's heritage
image: [ Valuable artefacts from the Angkor Wat complex were to be smuggled out of Cambodia ]
Valuable artefacts from the Angkor Wat complex were to be smuggled out of Cambodia

Military police in north-western Cambodia say they have foiled an attempt to smuggle three tonnes of ancient artefacts out of the country, including valuable relics from temples surrounding the famous Angkor Wat complex. A police spokesman said they were hidden in a truck with army number plates. As Flora Botsford reports from Bangkok, art smuggling is a serious problem in parts of Cambodia where sporadic fighting continues:

Military police officials said the ancient stoneworks were looted from temples in Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, bordering Thailand.

A truckload contained 14-stone Buddha heads, sculptures and carvings of traditional Apsara figures, the mythical spirits which adorn many ancient Khmer temples and several lion statues.

The authorities had been tracking the smugglers for nearly three months but decided to make their move when it appeared the artworks were being taken across the border.

A police spokesman said the antiquities were hidden beneath a pile of bricks in a truck licensed with military number plates. The truck's owner, who was reported to be armed, was arrested.

The deputy commander of military police in Siem Riep where the truck was seized appealed to the Cambodian government to take serious action against art smugglers, saying in future ancient temples would no longer be visited if all their artefacts were removed.

The United Nations has declared the famous Angkor temple complex a world heritage site, giving it special protection under international law.

But according to experts, lesser known temples get little protection from the authorities who are often working in cahoots with smugglers for a cut of the profits.

A haul like this is worth thousands of dollars on the Cambodian-Thai border, but by the time it reaches art markets in the west, its value could run into millions.

As sporadic fighting continues between remnants of the Khmer Rouge army and forces loyal to the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia's ancient heritage remains under threat.


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