‘Tragedy’ as armed gang grabs artefacts from birthplace of Olympics

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Two masked gunmen stormed into a small museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece smashing display cases with hammers and making off with dozens of antiquities up to 3,200 years old.

It was the second major museum theft in as many months in debt-crippled Greece, and a culture ministry unionist said spending cuts have compromised security at hundreds of museums and ancient sites across the country.

The robbers targeted the museum of the ancient Games at Olympia, a few hundred yards away from the world heritage site’s main museum that contains priceless statues and bronze artefacts excavated at the holiest sanctuary of ancient Greece.

Officials said 65 artefacts were stolen by the robbers, who tied up the only site guard, a 48-year-old woman.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation after the robbery, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.

“This is a very sad day ... a tragedy,” ministry Secretary-General Lina Mendoni said.

Police in Olympia and neighbouring regions set up roadblocks for the thieves, who are believed to have escaped in a car driven by an accomplice, while a police helicopter combed the area and special investigators were rushed in from Athens.

A spokesman for museum guards said: “The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world’s heritage”.

In January, thieves made off with art works by 20th-century masters Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the National Gallery in one of the best-guarded areas of central Athens.

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