Sunday 11th January, 2009 Posted: 22:33 CIT (03:33 +1 GMT)
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Egypt’s antiquities chief unveiled Sunday a bronze statue of what he described as an ancient Iraqi goddess that had been looted from Iraq.
Zahi Hawass said an Egyptian man working in Jordan was caught at Nuweiba port trying to smuggle the statue into the country.
In the course of ceremony, Hawass sliced through the plastic bubble wrap covering the 10 centimeter tall statue and handed it over to the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires, Abdel Hadi Ahmed.
"When the invasion of Iraq began in 2003, we wrote to the British and American governments asking them to protect Iraq’s heritage and museums," said Hawass. "But that didn’t happen."
Hawass said that since then his office has been tracking stolen Iraqi artifacts and has recovered some 5,000 items.
Hawass, who is a vigorous campaigner to recover Egypt’s own stolen antiquities, said he will not do business with museums that buy stolen Iraqi artifacts.
The antiquities chief said he couldn’t tell exactly the age or historical background of the statue, but said its headpiece suggests it is a female fertility deity.
Hawass said the smuggler now faces between three to five years in jail, but this could change to 25 years if a new law is approved in parliament next month.
Iraqi diplomat Ahmed told reporters that 24,000 stolen artifacts have been returned to Iraq as of July 2008.
According to UNESCO, between 3,000 to 7,000 pieces are still believed missing, including about 40 to 50 that are considered to be of great historic importance.
The smuggling of stolen antiquities from Iraq’s rich cultural heritage is allegedly helping finance Iraqi extremist groups, according to the U.S. investigator who led the initial probe into the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum.