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Looted Artifacts on Display at Afghan Museum
An Afghan visitor checks the details of artifacts, at the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009. A large number of stolen antiquities that were transported to the United Kingdom during the Afghanistan civil war and were confiscated at a British airport, were returned to Afghanistan and put on display. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

By: Heidi Vogt, Associated Press Writer

KABUL (AP).- The National Museum of Afghanistan on Tuesday unveiled hundreds of looted artifacts, some dating back as far as the 11th century, seized from smugglers trying to sell them on Europe's black market.

The museum has received about 2,000 pieces seized at British ports over the past six years, museum director Omara Khan Masoudi said. All were returned early this year and placed on exhibit Tuesday for the first time.

A trade route between Europe and Asia for centuries, Afghanistan has long been a treasure chest of both Buddhist and Arabic artifacts. But as lawlessness grows in the ancient mountain passes and along Silk Road routes, conservationists say looters are increasingly raiding sites that are unprotected and unnoticed.

Looting is "one of the biggest problems and one of the biggest challenges to the conservation of cultural heritage in this country," said Brendan Cassar, a cultural specialist with the U.N. who works on protecting historical sites.

Though UNESCO — the U.N. body for cultural preservation — has paid to hire guards for some sites, the vast majority have no security, Cassar said.

As in Iraq, Afghanistan's cultural heritage became the victim of war.

The looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was widely condemned as a preventable tragedy.

The Afghan museum was decimated by looting during the civil war and Taliban rise in the 1990s, but has since been restored with the help of international donors. Outside of the capital, however, there's little to be done, Cassar said.

"Looting at the provincial level is very, very difficult to stop," he said, both because of a lack of a protection and vast number of potential sites — many of them discovered by looters but not yet identified by a government otherwise preoccupied. He said he hoped for more help from security forces, both Afghan and international.

Masoudi, the museum director, said a special police force was set up five years ago to tackle looting, but that pieces continue to find there way out "in front of our ministry and our government."

On Tuesday, he said he was happy to have filled in a few more rooms in the echoing museum still struggling to restore a collection decimated by years of war.

"Each country, they have their own history, they have their own civilization, and it is very important for every country" to have these bits of history, Masoudi said.

Some of the looted artifacts make it much further than London. Masoudi said the museum received on Monday eight bronze age artifacts that had been confiscated in the United States. The collection included ancient knives and axes, the return of which took a year to organize.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

The National Museum of Afghanistan | Omara Khan Masoudi | UNESCO | Brendan Cassar |

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