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An "emergency red list" detailing what kinds of archaeological artifacts are being looted in war-torn Syria is being drawn up to help prevent priceless treasures from being sold on the black market.
The International Council on Museums told NBC News it planned to produce the list, which will be circulated to customs and police officials worldwide, after becoming increasingly concerned about the extent of looting amid the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime and its bloody crackdown.
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Julien Anfruns, director general of ICOM, said that "right now we are pretty much in the worst-case scenario in Syria" for looting and the destruction of ancient sites as the bitter conflict between Assad and the Free Syrian Army continues. Activists say between 23,000 and 26,000 have been killed since the fighting started last year.
The red list will contain pictures and details of the types of items that may have been looted, which Anfruns said would be a "powerful tool" for law enforcement authorities.
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"When officials seize [an] object, they can then say 'we have to be very careful, this may be a Syrian object,'" he said, enabling further investigations to take place to see if the piece was of "dubious origin."
Illicit art trade valued at billions
Anfruns said it was possible the regime was selling artifacts to raise money, but stressed he did not have evidence that this was happening.
"It's a situation that we have seen in some other places. It's definitely a possibility that we do not exclude," he said.
"Illicit traffic of art is a significant trade in the world – some of the valuations put that at between $6 billion and $7 billion every year," he said. "It's clear that Syrian antiquities are interesting for some parties. We really, really strongly advise any buyers to be extremely prudent … it's a serious legal matter and due diligence is even more necessary in the current case."
Anfruns said there were laws in Syria designed to protect its cultural heritage and even buying artifacts sold by the Assad regime could fall foul of the law. It would also depend on the laws of the buyer's country.
"Honestly, in the current situation of conflict and looting and destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, everything that would be on the market will be of a suspicious origin," he said.
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He said they were still at a preliminary stage with the first step to set up the group of experts who will draw up the red list over the next few months.
Anfruns said the conflict was too "hot" in Syria to enable investigators to work out what had actually been stolen. "What we do know is there has been looting, but what we don't know is what has been looted," he said.
ICOM produces a number of red lists for areas where art and archaeological artifacts is at risk from thieves. It produced an emergency red list for Egypt last year during the Arab Spring uprising and for Haiti in 2010 after it was hit by a devastating earthquake.
Clay tablets taken in the night
Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told NBC News that ancient clay tablets bearing inscriptions had been taken away in black bags during the night from an archaeological site at Tal Sheikh Hamad in May this year by people apparently working with the consent of Assad's forces.
Azzawi said he thought the value of the tablets and other artifacts such as jars, tools and jewelry taken away from the site would be in the millions of dollars, adding "I would expect they are over $100 million."
"Now the main question, the big question, is what happened with this, who is looking after them [the tablets]?" he said.
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"One guy – this is not verified by us – but he said … the accents of the people who took the bags were Lebanese. He said they were with beards, which gives a hint it's Hezbollah. They are experts in this illegal trading," Azzawi said.
"If they are not sold now on the market to bring extra cash for the dying regime, they may be used later," he added.
But he said if – as he assumed the regime would claim – the artifacts were being taken away to preserve them, he said then this was being done in the "worst way for such a precious heritage."
"If they took them to a safe place, why didn't they take them in a reasonable way? These are very fragile."
Noah Charney, founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, told NBC News that stolen art had been used by dictatorial regimes to raise money for generations.
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Charney said the Taliban had a track-record of breaking into tombs in Afghanistan, "destroying a huge amount and taking the rest of it to sell."
And he pointed to a report in the Germany news magazine Der Spiegal that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had tried to sell numerous pieces of stolen art to an art professor in Germany in order to buy an airplane.
The Nazi regime had also stolen "lots of art – not just from Jews" which was then sold to collectors often in the U.S. and U.K. before World War II.
"The idea of looting your own cultural heritage to fund a hostile or aggressive regime has a very rich history," he said.
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