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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
UN 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 has been catastrophic
The United Nations' cultural agency is sending experts to Iraq to help in the recovery and restoration of looted antiquities.

Iraq is known as the "cradle of civilisation" and the destruction and loss of its cultural heritage has been described as a catastrophe by archaeologists.

Around 30 leading experts are meeting at the headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Paris on Thursday for an initial assessment.

A mission will then be sent to Iraq, "conditions permitting", to assess the conditions of museums and historical sites, identify ways of restoring them and find potential donors.

Coalition troops have been criticised for failing 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.

Stolen antiquities

Unesco Director-General Koichiro Matsuura called on US and British forces to "take immediate measures of protection and surveillance of Iraqi archaeological sites and cultural institutions".

Experts from the British Museum, which houses the greatest Mesopotamian collection outside Iraq, will be part of the Unesco mission.

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
The museum's director Neil MacGregor said he hoped the team would "provide the help our Iraqi colleagues decide they need once civil order is restored".

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

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.

Mr Matsuura has called on countries bordering Iraq, international police and customs organisations to do all they can to block the trading of stolen antiquities.

And the British Museum wants to see a stop to 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.

Experts estimate 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.

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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