Historic day as UK troops give Afghans their treasures back

The British armed forces have returned historical artefacts dating back as far as the Bronze Age to Afghan museums, after they were stolen and smuggled abroad, it was announced yesterday.

The precious cargo, weighing more than two tonnes and containing 843 individual objects, left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire last week on board a C17 transport plane, and was then transferred from the UK military base Camp Bastion in Helmand to Kabul by Hercules aircraft.

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Hamid Karzai confirmed its safe arrival at a Press conference in the Afghan capital yesterday.

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Some of the items were looted from Afghanistan’s museums during civil wars in the country over the past two decades, while others came from illegal excavations of archaeological sites. They are thought to have been spirited out of Afghanistan for sale on the international black market.

The consignment included objects found in three separate seizures by customs officials as they were being smuggled into the UK, while other items came to light thanks to investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police. Additional objects were saved by private individuals.

Experts at the British Museum identified them as originating in Afghanistan and they were stored at the museum in London for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul. Some featured in the British Museum’s Afghanistan exhibition last year.

Among the most prized items are first-century AD furniture decorations known as the Begram Ivories and an important sculpture of Buddha from the second or third century AD, both stolen from Afghan museums during the 1992-94 civil war following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The oldest artefacts date back more than 4,000 years to the late third millennium BC and include Bronze Age cosmetic flasks.