ATHENS Greek police arrested 44 people suspected of smuggling ancient artifacts outside the country and recovered thousands of ancient coins and other treasures, the force said on Sunday.
A 66-year-old man, suspected of being the leader of a smuggling ring, was arrested along with another 43 people, aged between 25 and 74, including pensioners and municipal workers, police said in a statement.
Officers also seized more than 8,000 coins as well as jewelry, bronze statuettes and wooden icons, dating from the sixth century B.C up to the Byzantine period.
The arrests and seizures took place in a number of locations across northern and central Greece on Saturday and Sunday, said the force.
The artifacts had been dug up during illegal archeological explorations, mainly in the regions of Macedonia and Thessaly, it said, adding officers were working to identify items already sold abroad.
Greece, which is rich in ancient treasures, has seen a rise in crime as its debt-laden economy has shrunk 16 percent in size from its 2008 peak, leading to youth unemployment of just under 50 percent.
Armed thieves looted a museum last month in Greece's Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, stealing bronze and pottery artifacts weeks after the country's National Gallery was also burgled.
(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Andrew Heavens)