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Search for Iraq's Stolen Artifacts Gets Serious
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Participants in the Antiquities Protection Workshop look at a statue of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, while learning to counter heritage crimes and trafficking of artifacts, at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 23, 2019.
(VOA) -- Before Islamic State militants were forced from Iraq in 2017, they stole thousands of ancient artifacts. Most are still missing.

Now, an international team of archaeologists is working to recover as many of the stolen national treasures as possible.

Bruno Deslandes is an expert on historic buildings at UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency. He said, "We're trying to recover a lot of artifacts and need all local and international resources to work. Iraq cannot do this on its own."

Deslandes spoke recently at a gathering at the National Museum in Baghdad.

In 2014 and 2015, the Islamic State group attacked and destroyed historical areas on what UNESCO called an "industrial" scale. The group used stolen treasures to finance its operations. Artifacts were secretly sold to buyers throughout the Middle East and overseas.

Video released by Islamic State in 2014 showed militants using power tools and heavy machinery to tear down paintings and statues near the city of Mosul. What they did not destroy, they smuggled and traded.

Deslandes was the first international expert to return to the area in early 2017 while Islamic State forces were being driven out.

He and his team had to work quickly to examine the damage. They used three-dimensional scanning equipment and satellite imaging technology to search the area. Deslandes says they gathered a lot of important information that he thinks will be helpful in finding missing objects.

The National Museum meeting brought together Iraqi and foreign police, customs officials and archeological experts. It was the second meeting in two years organized by the European Union Advisory Mission in Iraq.

Law enforcement officials said they can help Iraqi police find the objects using records of seizures and other information.

Mariya Polner is with the World Customs Organization (WCO). She said reports of cultural heritage seizures by customs officials worldwide were just the beginning. Polner noted that better organization between the WCO's 183 members had helped increase recoveries.

In 2017, the WCO said officials recovered more than 14,000 stolen items worldwide, including paintings and statues. That is an increase of 48 percent from one year earlier.

Deslandes noted that some ancient sites inside Iraq were still at risk. He added, "When a site is liberated, it doesn't mean the looting has finished."

Edited by George Grow.

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