Two masked men stormed into a small museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece, smashing display cases with hammers and making off with dozens of antiquities up to 3,200 years old, authorities say.
Friday’s robbers targeted the museum of the ancient Games at Olympia, a few hundred metres away from the world heritage site’s main museum that contains priceless statues and bronze artifacts excavated at the holiest sanctuary of ancient Greece.
Officials said 65 artifacts were stolen by the robbers, who tied up the only site guard, a 48-year-old woman.
Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Olympia,said the robbery was unsophisticated and described it as a “smash and grab”.
“They were after gold wreaths and other items that do not exist at this museum. Apparently, these men did not know that,” he said.
“A government official said the wreckage suggests random violence: crowbars were used to smash cases that held clay [artifacts]. In fact, the robbers did more damage by destroying what they left behind than by removing what they did.”
Pavlos Geroulanos, Greece’s culture minister, submitted his resignation after the morning robbery, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Lucas Papademos, the Greek prime minister.
Geroulanos travelled on Friday to Olympia,some 340km southwest of Athens.
Police in Olympia and neighbouring regions set up roadblocks for 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 rushed in from Athens.
“According to the results of the investigation so far, unknown persons, this morning, at about 7:34am, immobilised the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring,” a police statement said.
A culture ministry official said the stolen antiquities dated from the 9th to the 4th centuries BC, apart from the seal-ring which dates to Late Bronze Age Mycenaean times and was found in another part of southern Greece.
“They took small objects made of bronze and pottery – figurines, vases and lamps – and the ring,” the official said.
“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.”
A spokesman for museum guards urged emergency government action to protect historic sites and museums, warning that spending cuts taken to save the country from bankruptcy have eroded security.
“The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world’s heritage,” Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards’ union, said
Efthimios Kotzas, the mayor of Olympia, urged authorities to improve security.
“The level of security is indeed lacking,” he told state-run NET television. “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.”
Friday’s robbery is the second major museum theft in the past two months 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.