He dismisses the possibility of a situation similar to what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq.

A vast majority of Egypt's museums and archaeological sites are secure and have not been looted, Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief antiquities official, said in a telephone interview on February 1. He also rejected comparisons between the current situation in Egypt and scenes of chaos and discord that resulted in the destruction of artefacts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“People are asking me, ‘Do you think Egypt will be like Afghanistan?'” he said. “And I say, ‘No, Egyptians are different — they love me because I protect antiquities.'”

Mr. Hawass, who has never been shy about promoting his work, described two episodes of looting that he said took place on January 28 night.

The instances

At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, thieves looking for gold broke 70 objects, including two sculptures of Tutankhamen, and took two skulls from a research lab before being stopped as they were leaving the museum. Mr. Hawass said that they had first been caught by civilians, who fought the thieves until soldiers arrived and detained them. He said that the damaged objects could all be restored.

In the second episode, he said, armed Bedouins looted a storage site on the Sinai Peninsula, where objects were being stored for a future museum, and took six boxes. But Mr. Hawass said that after he made statements on television and radio demanding the objects' return and warning the thieves that they would not be able to sell them, 288 objects were left in the street on February 1 morning and recovered by the police. He said he would not know until a review was completed how many objects in all had been taken.

In Saqqara, site of the oldest pyramid in Egypt and a number of important tombs, padlocks on the tombs were broken but nothing was taken, Mr. Hawass said. He said that other sites, including the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, the pyramids of Giza, and all of Egypt's other museums were safe, and credited not only the army but also average Egyptians, who he said had helped guards protect cultural sites.

“They stood with sticks” along with guards and antiquities inspectors, he said. “They stood in front of outlaws, and they stopped any theft.”

As Egypt's chief archaeologist, Mr. Hawass has made the return of Egypt's cultural patrimony his priority. He has called on Germany, for instance, to return the bust of Nefertiti that is in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and on Britain to return the Rosetta Stone.

Mr. Hawass, whose previous title was chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, was promoted on January 1 to a position in the cabinet of President Hosni Mubarak as Minister of Antiquities. He said that the government had responded to protesters' demands and that now people should be patient.

“They should give us the opportunity to change things, and if nothing happens they can march again,” he said. “But you can't bring in a new President now, in this time. We need Mubarak to stay and make the transition.”— © New York Times News Service

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