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Updated: January 31, 2011 19:23 IST

Military detain 50 at Egypt’s national museum

AP
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A member of the Egyptian special forces stands guard on the main floor of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on Monday. Would-be looters broke into Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 75 small artefacts.
AP A member of the Egyptian special forces stands guard on the main floor of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on Monday. Would-be looters broke into Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 75 small artefacts.

Soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country’s archaeological treasures, the military said on Monday.

Snipers were stationed on the roof of the building, and dozens of troops patrolled the grounds of the famed antiquities museum amid fears that the chaos sweeping Cairo could engulf the nation’s heritage. Some of the most intense anti-government protests in the past week happened near the museum.

On Monday, half a dozen suspected thieves lay in a group on the floor of the entrance, their faces covered by a blanket. Guards said they were caught trying to enter.

A military general at the museum said soldiers arrested about 35 men trying to break into the building on Sunday, and another 15 on Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Troops said they were given orders not to shoot, but to protect the building and its contents.

The majority of the museum was intact, but there were signs of an earlier break-in.

On the second floor, one case containing a gold trinket, two small rods and other small artefacts was broken, and another case was smashed on the first floor. The cases were next to the gated room containing the gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun that draws millions of tourists a year.

At the museum’s gift shop, broken glass, souvenirs and postcards littered the ground.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities chief, walked through the darkened museum with a military guard and said the museum was heavily protected by the Egyptian military. Later Monday, he was appointed Minister of State Antiquities in the new government named by President Hosni Mubarak, who faces calls from protesters for his ouster.

“If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe,” Mr. Hawass said.

A museum administrator found the head of a small clay statue on the stairs.

Looters had broken into the museum on Friday, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 75 small artefacts before soldiers caught them. Mr. Hawass said the broken artefacts could be restored.

Museum Director Tarek El Awady said the thieves appeared to be looking for gold, and didn’t understand the value of other artefacts.

The museum houses thousands of artefacts spanning the full sweep of Egypt’s rich pharaonic history.

Before the Army arrived early Saturday morning, young Egyptians, some armed with truncheons grabbed from police, created a human chain at the museum’s front gate to ward off looters.

Six boxes of small antiquities were looted from a storage facility in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, but there were no break-ins at the other 24 antiquities museums across Egypt, according to Mr. Hawass.

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