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Turkey Refuses to Return Looted Art to Syria

Turkey Refuses to Return Looted Art to SyriaTurkey Refuses to Return Looted Art to Syria

Syria’s antiquities chief has accused Turkey of refusing to return looted objects from ancient heritage sites in Syria or to provide information about them, allegations denied by the Turkish government.

Damascus and Ankara have been at odds since the start of a rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, with Turkey supporting armed groups fighting Assad’s government.

More recently, Islamic State extremists have declared a caliphate in territory they hold across Syria and Iraq and have destroyed monuments they consider pagan and sacrilegious.

One museum at the 2,000-year-old Roman city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site seized by IS, has been turned into a prison for the group and courtroom, Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters.

Even more destructive for Syria’s archaeological heritage are illicit excavations at sites such as Palmyra and the even older site of Mari, near the Iraqi border, he said.

Abdulkarim said more than 2,000 objects looted from these sites had been seized in Turkey, which in contrast to other countries neighboring Syria refuses to cooperate with the Syrian authorities on documenting and returning the artifacts.

“The Turkish government refuses to register the seized objects. There is no information, no pictures. It’s not transparent,” Abdulkarim told Reuters in an interview in Vienna.

“They should change their approach. They told us, we cannot do this because our law prohibits us from declaring what we have,” he said.

A Turkish Culture Ministry spokesman said Abdulkarim’s allegations were “baseless”.

“Some Syrian antiquities may have been smuggled to Turkey ... We are doing our best to prevent such smuggling,” he said.

“Whenever we seize such antiquities we return them to the related country’s institutions. We trained our border police on the issue very recently. I think those allegations are politically motivated,” the unnamed Turkish official said.