- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2012

ATHENS — Two masked gunmen stormed into a small museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on Friday, smashing display cases with hammers and making off with dozens of antiquities up to 3,200 years old, authorities said.

It was the second major museum theft in as many months in debt-crippled Greece, and a culture ministry unionist said spending cuts have compromised security at hundreds of museums and ancient sites across the country. With unemployment at 21 percent and Greece’s economy in its fifth year of recession, crime, poverty and homeless rates also have been increasing.

Friday’s robbers targeted the museum of the ancient Games at Olympia, a few hundred yards away from the world heritage site’s main museum, which 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.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation after the morning robbery, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. Mr. Geroulanos traveled on Friday to ancient Olympia, some 210 miles southwest of Athens.

“This is a very sad day … a tragedy,” ministry Secretary-General Lina Mendoni said.

Police in Olympia and neighboring 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 7:34 a.m., immobilized the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring,” a police statement said.

Police have provided a hotline for the public to provide information that could lead to the thieves’ capture.

A culture ministry official said the stolen antiquities dated from the 9th to the 4th centuries B.C., 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.”

Because the stolen artifacts have been displayed and catalogued, it is impossible for them to be sold in the open market.

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” said Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards’ union.

“There are no funds for new guard hirings,” he said. “There are 2,000 of us, and there should be 4,000, while many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don’t have optimum protection - even though guards are doing their very best to protect our heritage.

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