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PARIS (AP) -- Some of the looters who ravaged Iraqi antiquities had keys to museum vaults and were able to take pieces from safes, experts said Thursday at an international meeting.
The U.N. cultural agency gathered some 30 art experts and cultural historians in Paris on Thursday to assess the damage to Iraqi museums and libraries looted in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.
Although much of the looting was haphazard, experts said some of the thieves clearly knew what they were looking for and where to find it, suggesting they were prepared professionals.
"It looks as if part of the looting was a deliberate planned action," said McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago professor and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad. "They were able to take keys for vaults and were able to take out important Mesopotamian materials put in safes."
Cultural experts, curators and law enforcement officials are scrambling to track down the missing antiquities and prevent further looting of the valuables.
The pillaging has ravaged the irreplaceable Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, and the losses have triggered an impassioned outcry in cultural circles.
Many fear the stolen artifacts have been absorbed into highly organized trafficking rings that ferry the goods through a series of middlemen to collectors in Europe, the United States and Japan.
Officials at the UNESCO meeting at its headquarters in Paris said the information was still too sketchy to determine exactly what was missing and how many items were unaccounted for.
But they were united in calling for quick action to track down the pilfered items.
"I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country, in fact I'm pretty sure it was," said Gibson. He added that if a good police team was put together, "I think it could be cracked in no time."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)