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Last Updated: Monday, 5 May, 2003, 04:22 GMT 05:22 UK
Drive to recover Iraqi treasures
Iraqi guards survey the damage after looters rampaged through the National Museum of Baghdad
The US was widely criticised for not stopping the looting

International experts and law enforcement agencies are combining forces on Monday in the hope of tracking down artefacts looted from Iraq.

Thousands of irreplaceable items dating back to the dawn of civilisation were taken from Iraqi museums in the lawless days following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last month.

The looting has been described as "the crime of the century".

Art experts, museum curators and law enforcement officials hope to set up a massive database of the stolen items, for use by investigators, customs officials and dealers.

We don't yet have a complete record of all the stolen objects
Giovanni Boccardi, Unesco

"One of the key proposals is to significantly expand Interpol's existing database of stolen art to include the thousands of other items now missing in Iraq," said a statement from Interpol.

The international police organisation is hosting the two-day conference in the French city of Lyons.

Also involved is the United Nations cultural agency Unesco, and the International Council of Museums.

US Attorney-General John Ashcroft is due to address the closing session of the conference on Tuesday.

Radio appeal

Working out what exactly is missing is a major task for investigators.

Museum inventories, which may have been incomplete to start with, were destroyed or lost during the looting.

"We don't yet have a complete record of all the stolen objects, and we don't have any means to verify that a certain object is indeed coming from that collection," said Giovanni Boccardi from Unesco's World Heritage Centre in Paris.

The United States military was widely criticised for not doing more to stop the looting in Iraq.

It has begun broadcasting radio messages offering rewards to Iraqis to return the antiquities.

More than 100 items have already been handed in, US Central Command said last week.

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

Leading international experts in Mesopotamian antiquities, who met in London last week, have called for a further tightening up of Iraq's borders to stop looted items being smuggling out of the country.

Some experts believe some antiquities were stolen by professional thieves who knew what they were looking for - possibly working on behalf of wealthy clients.


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