TRIPOLI Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi stole ancient Roman artefacts when they fled Tripoli, bundled them into sacks and planned to sell them abroad, Libya's new rulers said on Saturday as they displayed the haul for the first time since its recovery.
The artefacts -- a collection of 17 stone heads, most the size of tennis balls, and terracotta fragments dating from the second or third centuries A.D. -- were recovered on August 23 when anti-Gaddafi fighters intercepted a convoy of loyalists heading south from Tripoli.
"All of them (the artefacts) date back to Roman times but with very strong local influence," said Saleh Algabe, director of the Antiquities Department in the new Libyan government.
"They were captured in cars belonging to Gaddafi militia which shows they were probably planning to smuggle them out of the country to fund their fight," against the new Libyan leadership, Algabe told a news conference.
The carved stone heads in the collection appear to have been detached from statues. A section of a tile with what looked like an image of a dog decorated on it was also displayed.
The items were shown in public for the first time on Saturday at a ceremony when the government's security committee handed them over to the antiquities department.
"It (the collection) is important because it is very rare," said Algabe." These pieces confirm the contribution of the Libyan people to early human civilisation."
Libya was home to thriving Roman outposts beginning around the first century A.D. One Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, was born in Leptis Magna, on the site of the modern Libyan town of Khoms. He turned his hometown into a model Roman city and large parts of it are still intact.
FLIGHT FROM TRIPOLI
Officials said they were not sure if the items were stolen from a state institution because specialists were still conducting an inventory of government-owned antiquities.
Mustafa Terjuman, a security official with Libya's interim leadership, said the haul was recovered on the day anti-Gaddafi rebels marched into Tripoli, forcing most loyalist troops to flee.
"The revolutionaries found a unit of Gaddafi soldiers on the airport road (leading south out of Tripoli)," said Terjuman.
"There was a heavy battle, and as a result the Gaddafi troops left a number of vehicles. In one of the vehicles was a sack with these items."
He said there was a delay in returning the artefacts because the head of the unit which intercepted them was injured in the fighting soon after. After he returned from medical treatment abroad, he alerted the new government.
Libya overthrew Gaddafi in an seven-month war, the bloodiest of this year's Arab Spring uprisings. The country's cultural heritage emerged from the fighting relatively unscathed.
The biggest theft reported so far was a huge collection of ancient coins, jewellery and statuettes. It went missing from a bank vault in the eastern city of Benghazi early in the conflict when looters drilled through a concrete ceiling.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)