Page last updated at 21:54 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 22:54 UK

Dutch hand back looted Iraqi art

An ancient relief artwork in the Iraqi National Museum
Thousands of looted artefacts have already been returned to Iraq

The Netherlands has returned to Iraqi ownership dozens of ancient artefacts that were stolen from the country after the US-led invasion of 2003.

The 69 items were surrendered by Dutch art dealers after Interpol disclosed their illegal origin.

Among them was a terracotta relief of a bearded man praying, believed to be more than 2,000 years old.

Tens of thousands of items are believed to have been looted from Iraq in the chaos which followed the invasion.

Despite international efforts to track items down, fewer than half of the artefacts have so far been retrieved.

Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch minister for education, culture and science, said the world should "cherish and honour" Iraq's history as the cradle of civilisation.

"These objects lose a lot of their value if they are stolen from their site," he said.

Mr Plasterk said the items were surrendered by Dutch art dealers once police informed them they had been stolen.

Setting example

The artefacts are expected to be put on display in the Dutch National Museum for Antiquities until they can be returned to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.

Dutch archaelogist Diederik Meijer said they should not be bought and sold, and their return sent a signal to the international art market.

"Those who possess illegal art works run the risk of losing them," he said.

The Dutch culture ministry said the items were symbolically handed to the Iraqi ambassador in the Netherlands, Siamand Banaa.

Mr Banaa said he hoped other countries would "emulate the Dutch example".

Correspondents say the looting of Iraqi art was one of the greatest scandals of the post-invasion period.

US troops stationed at the museum in Baghdad had no orders to intervene as an estimated 15,000 pieces were stolen.

Other items have also been taken during illegal archaeological digs around the country.

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