More than 800 historic artefacts — stolen from museums in Afghanistan some 20 years ago and smuggled abroad — have been returned to Kabul with help from the British Museum.

They include: a rare sculpture of Buddha, pieces of the Begram Ivories dating back to the 1st century B.C., Bronze Age carvings and medieval Islamic coins.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai confirmed that the precious art cargo, weighing more than two tonnes and sent from Britain last week, had safely arrived in Kabul.

While some of the items were looted from museums during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, some came from illegal excavations of archaeological sites. They were being smuggled through Britain to be sold on the international black-market when they were seized by custom officials.

They were given to the British Museum for safekeeping, and some were shown at its exhibition of Afghan art last year.

Museum’s director Neil MacGregor said the exchange was a sign of increasing cooperation between the two countries’ cultural institutions.

“This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict,” he said.

Last year, the British Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan signed a memorandum of understanding that efforts would continue to identify and return more artefacts to Kabul.

It was the first time that the British military was involved in transporting art to Afghanistan.

“The transfer of these items is a vote of confidence and a step forward in Afghanistan’s journey towards normalisation,” said Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.

It is estimated that more than two thirds of the exhibits at the National Museum in Kabul were stolen or destroyed during the civil war.

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