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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Iraqi antiquities summit held
The vault of the National Museum in Baghdad
Looters left little behind

Representatives from some of the world's leading museums are meeting at the British Museum in London to discuss how to help museums and archaeologists in Iraq.

Thousands of priceless and irreplaceable objects are still missing from museums there in the looting that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein by US-led forces.

On Monday, the American military said that more than 100 items looted from Iraqi museums had been handed in to coalition forces.

"Iraqis started to return the items after coalition forces began urging local residents to return any artefacts taken during the looting in Baghdad," US Central Command in the Gulf state of Qatar said in a statement.

The items are said to include priceless manuscripts, a 7,000-year-old vase and one of the oldest bronze bas-relief representations of a bull.

The US has pledged to recover and repair priceless antiquities from Iraq's museums, following widespread criticism of coalition forces for their failure to stop looting.

Worldwide hunt

The aim of the London meeting - organised by the British Museum and the cultural arm of the United Nations, Unesco, - is to decide what can be done by the international community to restore Iraq's devastated heritage.

John Curtis, the British Museum's keeper of Near East antiquities, will brief colleagues from the Louvre in Paris, the Getty Museum in California, New York's Metropolitan Museum and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Mr Curtis, who has just returned from a visit to Iraq's national museum in Baghdad, will be outlining the extent of the damage.

The British Museum, which has traditionally had the largest Mesopotamian collection outside Iraq, has offered expert assistance to their beleaguered counterparts in Baghdad.

The medium-term goal of the museum community is to send a team of curators and conservators to Iraq within the next few weeks.

And with growing evidence that systematic, organised looting took place, experts attending the conference are likely to suggest measures to discourage the trade in stolen antiquities.

Police art squad members and senior customs officers will also be attending.

Interpol has already launched a worldwide hunt for looted Iraqi treasures, and has warned collectors not to buy items they suspected had been stolen.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Baghdad
"A handful of items have now been recovered locally"

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