Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 18:25 UK

Looted treasures return to Afghanistan

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Kabul

A 900-year-old bronze bird.
Police seized 1,500 treasures from smugglers at Heathrow airport

In a small room inside Kabul museum, staff are slowly unwrapping hundreds of stolen pieces of Afghanistan's past.

Worth a fortune on the black market, the smugglers' hoard was spotted and seized by customs officers at Heathrow airport in London.

Now it has been returned to Afghanistan.

More than 1,500 artefacts were recovered in an 11-day operation. Many are priceless objects of Islamic art looted in illegal excavations.

They include a magnificent tall bronze bird. Nine-hundred years ago, its owner would have burned incense in the drawer that slots into its puffed chest.

"We are really happy to have our objects back," says Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, who has been preparing descriptions of the recovered treasures in the Dari language for the display cabinets.

There are prehistoric tools - up to 6,000 years old - and ancient coins, as well as more recent Islamic tiles, inscribed basins and bronze candlesticks.

"We wish all the countries around the world - if they have our collections - would transfer them back to our country too," Mr Rahimi says.

During Afghanistan's civil war, Kabul museum was on the front line. Used as a base by the Mujahedin, the building was badly damaged. But most devastating of all - 70% of its rich collection was systematically looted and smuggled abroad.

Much of what survived was then smashed to bits by the Taliban.

Giant stone feet supporting an empty plinth.
Archaeologists are excavating a 5th Century Buddhist monastery

Today, archaeologists are digging for new treasures in the hills overlooking Kabul. On Orange Mountain, a team led by a French-Afghan - and funded by France - has uncovered the remains of a Buddhist monastery dating back to the 5th Century.

On one level, they discovered the giant feet of a Buddha on a pedestal. Its toes alone are almost 20cm (eight inches) long. Elsewhere the team found Buddhist stupas, or shrines, surrounded by the remains of intricately sculpted statues.

Throughout Afghanistan, the soil is loaded with finds like this. But years of conflict have kept most professional archaeologists away.

Instead, illegal excavation and smuggling - often to order - have become big business.

The culture ministry has formed a special police force to try to combat the looters. But there are only 500 officers for the entire country, many areas of which are insecure and outside government control.

The bottom half of a line of delicately carved statues.
Many of Afghanistan's archaeological sites are still being plundered

"Every day we get reports that illegal excavation is taking place here or there," Afghanistan's Deputy Culture Minister Ghulam Nabi Farahi explains inside his own ministry, which is now surrounded by blast barriers and armed guards.

It was the target of a suicide attack last year by anti-government insurgents.

"We have too many sites, too many problems. 500 police is not enough. We need more," Mr Farahi says.

The Buddhist dig on Orange Mountain does have 24-hour police protection, and it is secure. But artefacts from other Afghan sites are still turning up in places like London.

"I think we all have a responsibility in this," argues Mark Sedwill, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan.

Museum staff measure the bronze bird.
The artefacts confiscated in London go on display in Kabul shortly

"Afghanistan has a rich history. The Greeks were here, Genghis Khan was here. Many elements of our own history were here. So any country like the UK that might be a destination for these [stolen] items has a clear responsibility to try to return them and help Afghanistan restore its cultural heritage."

The 1,500 items seized at Heathrow were identified and catalogued by staff from the British Museum. They were eventually returned to Kabul with the help of the Red Cross and should go on public display here in the next few weeks.

The recovered items are a huge boost to the museum's depleted collection - and to morale. But they're just a fraction of what Afghanistan has already lost and of what is still slipping across its borders.

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