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Dubai foils new attempt to smuggle Iraq artefacts

DUBAI (Reuters) - Dubai foiled an attempt to smuggle archaeological items of Iraqi origin, its customs authority said on Wednesday, as part of increased efforts to curb use of the emirate as a smuggling conduit.

Statues, a vase, a cup and coins dating back to the 4th century BC, were found hidden in chair pads in the possession of an Arab national at Dubai airport, a statement said.

The emirate, which has made itself a reputation for being the Middle East’s trade and tourism hub, has been increasing efforts to fight smuggling, seizing large items over the past year of prohibited goods including animal furs, artefacts, drugs, intellectual property and pharmaceutical drugs.

In 2009, customs seized more than a hundred archaeological items smuggled from Iraq, dating back to different epochs and were hidden inside a ship coming to Dubai.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein sparked looting in Baghdad, Iraq is struggling to recover numerous ancient treasures.

The early weeks of the invasion saw 15,000 items disappear from the National Museum, of which only 6,000 have been returned. Ancient sites remain poorly guarded as thieves snatch pieces from Sumerian, Babylonian or Assyrian times.

Dubai is one of the routes used by artefact smugglers, who then sell items in the Gulf Arab region or beyond, said London-based Iraqi archaeologist Lamia Al Gailani-Werr.

“Artefacts go to Dubai and they could go anywhere, but there are also Gulf collectors, quite a number of them, and there’s a very lucrative market in the Gulf for that,” said Werr.

Other hubs for smuggling artefacts from Iraq include Iran, Jordan and Turkey, she said.

Mohammed Mattar al-Marri, executive director of Dubai Customs Cargo Operations, told Reuters the items seized in the latest operation included three bronze statues, an ornamented vase and a glazed pottery cup decorated with fish pictures as well as coins dating back to the Hellenistic era (about 300 years from 323 BC).

Editing by Ralph Boulton