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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK
Execution for China relics theft
Chengde Mountain Resort ( photograph courtesy of Unesco)
Chengde Mountain Resort is a Unesco World Heritage site
A Chinese official responsible for looking after cultural relics has been sentenced to death for stealing them.

Li Haitao was found guilty of the theft of more than 250 antiques over a period of 10 years, state media said.

The case is said to be the largest theft of antiquities since the start of communist rule in 1949.

Four others were given prison sentences and fines for their involvement in the thefts, which are said to have involved some of China's most important relics.

Mr Li worked as the security chief for Chengde's Cultural Relics Protection Department, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The Intermediate People's Court of Chengde found him guilty of stealing 259 relics from the Chengde Mountain Resort in central Hebei Province, which is listed by Unesco as a World Heritage site.

Mr Li earned 3.8 million yuan ( $460,000) from selling the relics, Xinhua said.

Police said Mr Li initially replaced stolen items with fakes, but later took the relics home without substituting them.

Police have so far uncovered 109 of the relics, but the rest have yet to be found, according to Xinhua.

Chinese relics command high prices on the international market, and antiquities crime is increasing.

Museums are thought to have lost thousands of relics due to theft by employees or organised gangs.

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