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Fear not, US tells guitarists worried by illegal wood

Globe-trotting guitarists need not fear prosecution if they are stopped at the US border with instruments made of illegally traded wood, two US government departments say.

In a letter to a US congresswoman, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior sought to allay fears stirred when famous guitar maker Gibson was raided on suspicion of breaking a US law on trade in endangered species.

"People who unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object containing wood that was illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of law and who, in the exercise of due care, would not have known that it was illegal, do not have criminal exposure," the letter said.

"The federal government focuses its enforcement efforts on those who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them," it added.

The letter, sent to Marsha Blackburn, vice chair of the House of Representatives subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade, was seen Wednesday on her website (blackburn.house.gov).

Blackburn is a Republican from Tennessee, where Gibson is headquartered.

Gibson - makers of Les Paul guitars coveted by rock, folk and country stars - has denied wrongdoing after US wildlife agents raided its facilities in August over alleged improperly-documented imports of Indian rosewood and ebony.

The raid stirred worries among guitarists that their instruments, particularly those made before the century-old Lacey Act banning trade in endangered wildlife was extended in 2008 to timber, might be seized by customs.

"People are confused... There is uncertainty about what the federal government expects," George Gruhn, a vintage guitar dealer in Nashville who sells instruments worldwide, told the Tennessean newspaper.

Gibson's owner Henry Juszkiewicz went so far as to tell CNN that First Lady Michelle Obama may have broken the law when she took a Gibson acoustic guitar out of the country to give to her French counterpart Carla Bruni in 2009.

The Gibson case has taken on political overtones, with Juszkiewicz - who says his company is the victim of federal "bullying" - invited by Republicans to sit in on President Barack Obama's address to Congress on jobs last week.

Gibson - which also makes Baldwin pianos, Wurlitzer jukeboxes and in Asia, Epiphone guitars - was also raided in November 2009 on suspicion of illegal ebony imports from Madagascar. No charges were brought.