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US returns smuggled ancient artefacts to Libya

A Hellenic sculpture of a head from the ancient Libya city of Cyrene (Yousef Murad/AP)
A Hellenic sculpture of a head from the ancient Libya city of Cyrene (Yousef Murad/AP)

The United States has returned a cache of smuggled ancient artefacts to Libya as the Mediterranean country struggles to protect its heritage against the backdrop of years of war and unrest.

The repatriated items include two sculptures dating to the 4th century BC from the ancient city of Cyrene.

One, named the Veiled Head of a Female, was previously in the hands of a private collector of other illegal artefacts, according to a statement from the US Embassy in Libya.

Libya-Smuggled Artifacts
A collection of ancient pottery returned to Libya from the United States (Yousef Murad/AP)

The other, also a Hellenic bust, had been at the Metropolitan Museum of New York since 1998, the statement said. Both were displayed by Libyan antiquities officials at a reception ceremony in the country’s capital, Tripoli.

Libyan antiquities authorities thanked American officials and law enforcement for the returned items and said that they looked forward to future cooperation.

The embassy credited the work of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations officials for the recovery of the artefacts.

“Although these antiquities were brought illegally to the United States by traffickers, legal efforts have succeeded in returning them to their country of origin,” the embassy statement read.

Libya boasts many ancient Greek and Roman structures, along with a wealth of ancient artefacts in its major museum in the capital of Tripoli and in other museums countrywide, though its archaeological sites have been plundered for decades.

Libya has been wrecked by chaos since a Nato-backed uprising toppled and killed long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The country was after that split for years between rival administrations in the east and the west, each supported by an array of militias and foreign governments.

Large-scale fighting has only stopped in the past year, but Libyans have yet to unite under a single political leadership, despite strenuous UN-led efforts.

The Greeks founded the settlement of Cyrene, close to the modern town of Shahat, in the 4th century BC. It was later incorporated into the Roman empire.

The United Nations added Cyrene to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites in 1982 and it has been classified as a location that is particularly endangered due to neglect and looting since 2016.