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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
UK sends antiquities experts to Iraq
An official at the National Museum of Antiquities, armed with an iron bar in one hand, stands on guard
The damage by looters is catastrophic
Britain is dispatching a group of experts to Iraq to help in the restoration and recovery of looted antiquities.

There has been outrage after coalition troops failed to prevent looters burning priceless libraries and ransacking museums.

Among the works now missing or destroyed are some of the first examples of written words and number systems from the dawn of civilisation.

The British Museum - which has the greatest Mesopotamian collection outside Iraq - said the destruction and theft was a "catastrophe" for the country's cultural heritage.

Archaeology experts from the museum will join their embattled counterparts in Iraq in their effort to repair some of the damage.

Director Neil MacGregor said: "Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq.

"We hope that the British Government and the international community can move quickly to take the steps necessary to avoid further damage and to prepare the way for recovering objects looted, and for conserving those that can still be restored."

Conservation task

Officials from Unesco, the UN cultural agency, will meet staff from the British Museum on Thursday to discuss tactics for Iraq.

Mr MacGregor said: "There will be a large conservation task to be done, extending over many years and requiring the widest possible international co-operation."

He hoped that through Unesco, an international team of expert curators and conservators could be put together to "provide the help our Iraqi colleagues decide they need once civil order is restored".

An Iraqi man reads papers at the entrance of the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad
An Iraqi reads papers in Baghdad's ransacked national museum
A museum spokesman added: "The British Museum has a world-class conservation department which is used to conserving objects of this fragility and importance.

"We are keen to send out conservators and archaeologists from the museum's relevant departments as soon as it is safe to do so."

Dr Lamia Gailani, who was an archaeologist at the Baghdad museum for 10 years, told BBC Radio 4's Front Row, that there were two responsibilities that now needed to be undertaken.

"The first thing is the conservation and the repairing because quite a lot of the material appears to have been smashed not stolen, so we need to repair them all," she said.

"Before that, is how to secure the museum again because now it is open, so really you need to get these two things done at the beginning."

Legal acquisition

Archaeologists are worried that items looted in Iraq may already have left the country and, in some cases, found their way onto the international market.

The British Museum wants the international community and Unesco to stop the legal acquisition of looted items and ensure their return to Iraq.

Such a declaration would follow the precedent set after World War II when art looted by the Nazis had to be returned to its owners.

It is estimated that thieves have taken more than 170,000 items from Baghdad's main museum, with the museum in Mosul in the north undergoing a similar fate.

The British Museum said US and UK troops must be unstinting in their defence of historical sites and museums against looters.

Critics have asked why museums were left vulnerable despite repeated warnings about the dangers to priceless works before the conflict began.

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