Afghan rebels loot gold for guns

Click to follow
FEARS are growing among archaeologists that with Afghan rebels laying siege to Kabul, officials there may be dipping into a priceless treasure of 2,000-year-old Bactrian gold jewellery to buy arms and secure the neutrality of regional warlords.

In 1978 Russian archaeologists digging in mounds near the foothills of the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan stumbled upon six tombs of 100 ancientwarrior kings who were buried with some 22,000 golden ornaments. Joleyn Leslie, a British expert, said: "It's of inestimable value. If only the world could see it all. It's on the order of Tutankhamun in Egypt."

Tillya-Tepe, as the necropolis is known, stood at the gateway between the ancient Greek and Indian civilisations and its golden crowns, pendants and gem-encrusted breastplates are a rare fusion of Hellenic and Asian artistry. Several pieces of jewellery combine such Greek motifs as gods frolicking on dolphins with dragons and Chinese horsemen.

Bactrian gold is now turning up in the bazaars of Peshawar, near the Afghan border, and in Rawalpindi. It is being eagerly snapped up by dealers from Tokyo, London and Switzerland, according to one western trader who was offered several pieces. Some experts think the jewellery was from a recently looted Bactrian tomb at Tillya-Tepe, but others are positive that the items were plundered from Kabul.

In the shattered Afghan capital the treasure has been under the protection of the defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, since 1993 when he captured it in a fierce gun battle from a rival warlord who held the southern part of the city. As rockets and mortars rained down, the gold was packed in seven trunks and moved from the basement of the Kabul museum into safer vaults in the presidential palace.

No scholars have seen the hoard since 1991, when the pro-Moscow dictator, Najibullah, unveiled it to diplomats to disprove rumours that the Soviets stole it when they pulled out of Afghanistan.

Since then, the closest any outsider has come to seeing it was in June when Nancy Dupree, a writer and historian, confronted Massoud over persistent reports that the Bactrian gold had recently gone missing. "He threw up his arms and said, 'It's a lie!'" said Mrs Dupree, who was taken by Massoud to the vaults. "I saw seven boxes, but wasn't allowed to look inside any of them. My gut reaction is that the gold coming out now is new stuff."

The Russians left another tomb unexcavated. Some smugglers claim that an Uzbek warlord, General Rashid Dostum, is using bulldozers and land- mine detectors to plunder Bactrian ruins, causing incalculable damage to the sites. Near Jalalabad, one rebel commander has encircled a Buddhist pagoda with tanks while his men gouge out the sacred treasures inside.

Afghan-watchers in Islamabad claim that the besieged Kabul government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani is so broke that it was probably forced to sell off jewellery from the Bactrian hoard. So far, Commander Massoud has managed to keep up his soldiers' wages of pounds 7 a month. He knows that when the ex-Mujaheddin commander of Herat stopped paying his men they simply surrendered to the Taliban militia forces now threatening Kabul. Diplomats claim that the pro-government tribal chieftains insist on being paid in foreign cash, knowing that local currency is worthless.

The Bactrian treasure is worth many millions of pounds and may have proven too rich a temptation to resist. One western dealer said that a Bactrian gold pendant, smaller than a woman's palm, which depicts an Asian warrior harnessing two turquoise-encrusted dragons, recently sold in Switzerland for more thanpounds 160,000. A Pakistani archaeologist, Professor Hassan Dani, said: "After heroin and hashish, antiquities are the Afghans' biggest money-earners."

Looters have ransacked the Kabul museum, carting off precious Hindu ivories, Buddhist statues and frescoes and almost two tons of ancient gold and silver coins. Dealers in Islamabad allege that the British Museum may have bought some of these stolen coins.

Few of the treasures are likely to be recovered. One dealer said: "Some Pakistani smugglers were discussing how they planned to shear off a six-and-a-half ton Buddha stone head somewhere in Afghanistan and sell it to a client in Japan. That's a pretty big head, but they weren't at all worried about getting it out."