Greek crisis: Austerity cutbacks blamed as Olympics museum is raided

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

The robbers targeted the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity, which lies a few hundred yards away from the world heritage site’s main museum, Archaeological Museum of Olympia, which contains priceless statues and bronze artifacts.

Officials said 65 artifacts were stolen after robbers tied up the only guard at the smaller museum, a 48-year-old woman.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation, though it was unclear last night whether this had been accepted by prime minister Lucas Papademos.

Lina Mendoni, the culture ministry’s secretary-general, said: “This is a very sad day.”

Police set up roadblocks to catch 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 brought in from Athens.

In a statement, the police said: “According to the results of the investigation so far, unknown persons, this morning, at about 07:34 am, immobilised the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring.”

A culture ministry official said the stolen items dated from the 9th century to the 4th century BC, plus a seal ring, which dates to Late Bronze Age/Mycenaean times (c1600-1100BC).

The official added: “They took small objects made of bronze and pottery – figurines, vases and lamps – and the ring. The artifacts were behind reinforced glass panels which fracture like a car windscreen, and the thieves grabbed whatever small objects they could reach through the holes they opened.”

Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards’ union, urged emergency government action to protect historic sites and museums, warning that spending cuts taken to save the country from bankruptcy have eroded security.

He 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. There are no funds for new guards … We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don’t have optimum protection.”

Officials said the robbers seemed to have poor information on the museum, asking the guard where they could get golden wreaths and a valuable stamp collection – which are not part of the display.

“They seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a hold-up,” a culture ministry official said.

Olympia’s mayor, Efthimios Kotzas, urged authorities to improve security.

He said: “The level of security is indeed lacking. These are treasures. A piece of world heritage has been lost, thanks to these thieves … I think [authorities] should have been more mindful and the security should have been more serious.”

The robbery is the second major museum theft this year in Greece. 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.