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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
Libya fears for its stolen heritage
By Rana Jawad
BBC, Tripoli

Libya is home to some of the world's best preserved archaeological sites, showcasing tales of Roman, Byzantine, and Greek civilisations.

Artefacts from Sabratha have been taken to Egypt

This historical wealth is Libya's main tourist attraction, but that wealth is increasingly under threat from looters.

Officials in Libya's archaeological department have become frustrated, saying the lack of security is the result of government under-funding.

Tripoli Museum contains fragments of Libya's ancient and modern history.

Visitors are required to leave all bags at the entrance, but some of the most basic security measures like surveillance cameras, are nowhere in sight.

The museum's manager, Kamal Shtewi, is dismayed at the security problems they're facing, and compared archaeological thefts to "hearing you lost a member of your family - like a part of your history was violated."

"There should be surveillance cameras inside the museum, like they have in museums worldwide because it would facilitate our security work," Mr Shtewi said.

"We've heard the head of the archaeological department is working hard to achieve this task."

International network

Officially, 90 historical pieces like pottery vessels and statues have been stolen since 1988.

In reality, the figure is much higher, as most items are stolen from unauthorised excavation sites and even sites uncovered during seismic surveys in the desert by oil companies.

Chairman of the department of archaeology Guima Anag
If you are paying a guard just over $2 a day to guard pieces that can be valued up to hundreds of thousands of dollars... he could easily be distracted
Guima Anag
Department of archaeology
Most registered thefts are from museums and archaeological sites like Shahat in the south, Sabratha near Tripoli and Abikamash in the east, towards the Egyptian border.

These areas are often patrolled by old, untrained and underpaid officials.

Libyan authorities say those responsible for trafficking pieces are part of a wider network of international organised crime.

A report by the Supervision Authority in Libya, describes the thefts as "widespread," and lays blame on the archaeological department, saying they failed to implement proper security measures on sites and museums despite having sufficient funds to do so.

The report also criticises the ministries of justice and public security, for not taking any concrete steps to find the perpetrators involved.


Chairman of the department of archaeology Guima Anag says the reason behind the security failure is the lack of a proper budget and excessive bureaucracy.

"We have very little room to manoeuvre, to get the right staff that we would like," he said.

Visitor to the Tripoli Museum
Security is lax at the Tripoli Museum
"If we had that kind of authority, it would cost much more than the budget can handle."

Mr Anag was clearly frustrated and angry as he summed up the poor state his department is in.

"We've been deprived of the necessary funds to improve our systems, which have been archaic for a very long time, outdated, weak, inefficient, understaffed, under-funded and under-developed," he said.

The archaeological department says their 2005 budget was 3m dinars ($2.23 million) on paper but only a quarter of this amount was allocated.

They say the budget is spent on minimum wage salaries but Mr Anag says raising wages would be the best way to improve security.

"If you are paying a guard just over $2 a day to guard pieces that can be valued at up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the black market, he could easily be distracted from his duties by small amounts of money."

Egyptian connection

Some items stolen from the museum of Sabratha were seized at the Egyptian border in 2003 and are now under the guardianship of the museum of Alexandria in Egypt.

Mr Anag says that a lack of proper documentation has delayed the return of these pieces.

"This is hard to admit, but Libya did not have the proper proof that those pieces are genuinely from Sabratha."

The culture ministry says other stolen artefacts have ended up in Egypt and have held talks with Egyptian diplomats in Tripoli regarding the issue.

The ministry says it is building fences around archaeological sites and installing surveillance equipment.

It has asked the General People's Congress (legislative body) to introduce strict laws on artefact theft.

The archaeology department wants sufficient funds to increase their ability to recruit younger field personnel who can be properly trained in security, as archaeologists and as museum guides, all of which are severely lacking.

Whole officials blame each other for the shortcomings, they agree there is an urgent need to step up efforts to preserve the country's heritage before it is too late.

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