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Looters Still Ransacking in Afghanistan


04 February 2007




LONDON, (CAIS) -- More than five years after the fall of the Taliban regime, and invasion of Afghanistan, the plundering of archaeological sites and museums not only continues but has evolved into a sophisticated trade that could be financing the country's warlords and insurgents, experts say.

The International Council of Museums, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of the world's natural and cultural heritage, on Friday published a "red list" of Afghan antiquities at risk, urging collectors, dealers and museums to be vigilant when they come across objects that might have been stolen.


The list includes pottery and statuettes from the 3rd millennium B.C.E., golden reliquaries from the 1st century and Islamic panels from the 13th century.

"Ancient sites and monuments, ranging from the Old Stone Age to the 20th Century, are being attacked and systematically looted," the Paris-based organization of museums said in a statement.

Some of the artifacts have turned up in fancy auction houses and antique shops in London, Tokyo and New York, the group said.

"Afghanistan is now at serious risk from organized destruction and plundering," said ICOM Secretary General John Zvereff.

A crossroad of Indo-Persian culture for centuries, Afghanistan has always been a treasure trove for archaeologists.

The world was shocked when the Taliban blew up two 1,600-year-old Buddha statues along the ancient Silk Road in March 2001. The fundamentalist Islamic movement deemed the statues, famed for their size and location, idolatrous.

Later that year the Taliban, which had controlled most of Afghanistan with Western support, since 1996, was ousted by former allies, the U.S. and its allies for hosting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

However, remnants of the former regime are still fighting to regain power, and there is concern that profits from the sale of looted art could be going to profit the insurgents or the country's warlords.

"Some of the trade is used to finance armaments and militia," said Lucas Verhaegen, a Belgian police investigator of illegal trafficking.

The fledgling government has said that with its police and army struggling against resurgent Taliban fighters, warlords and opium barons, it has insufficient resources to protect archaeological sites and museums.

"The means we have are not sufficient. We see worsening vandalism," said Humayum Tandar, Afghan ambassador to Belgium.

Verhaegen described a highly organized trade that uses complicated smuggling routes to avoid detection -- over the 3,500-foot Khyber Pass connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, on to Lebanon, and then via the airport either in Brussels or Amsterdam to a final destination in Switzerland or the United States.

"The more transit points you have, the more difficult it is to retrace the origins," Verhaegen said. Certificates could be changed along the way to make the art appear legitimate.

Much has been made of an exhibit at Paris' Guimet Museum, where 22,000 pieces of jewel-encrusted crowns, golden daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound are back on display after being hidden for years by Afghans at great personal risk.

Still missing, however, are more than 55,000 art objects that were stolen from all over the country since the 1980s, said Zemaryalai Tarzi, a prominent Afghan archaeologist.

"Never has a country been looted so systematically as Afghanistan," he said. "It was before the Taliban, it was during the Taliban, it was after. And it continues," he said.





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