Afghanistan's ancient gold is safe, says Foreign Minister

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The so-called Bactrian Gold, Afghanistan's hoard of 2,000-year-old gold nuggets, silver ornaments, manuscripts and other ancient treasures, has survived intact after years of civil war and unrest, a senior minister said this week.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, told a meeting of Unesco's general conference in Paris that Afghans were happy to learn the "good news" that the collection - long rumoured to have been stolen - was in the vaults beneath the presidential palace in the capital, Kabul.

Only a few days ago, an official from Unesco, the UN's cultural organisation, told The Independent that there was still no final proof that the treasures were in Kabul. The minister's pronouncement was the latest instalment in an intriguing drama in which the centrepiece is a collection of treasures discovered in 1978.

They were unearthed in the north of the country during excavations of ancient burial mounds by the Greek-Russian archaeologist Victor Sariyannidis in 1978. The find was dated from the period when northern Afghanistan was part of the ancient kingdom of Bactria, conquered by Alexander the Great in 327BC.

The hoard was dispatched to Kabul for safe-keeping but, within months, the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded, beginning a disastrous decade of occupation. That was followed by civil war - during which much of Afghanistan's cultural heritage was plundered or destroyed - and then by Taliban rule and the assault by American-led forces in 2001.

For years, rumours circulated that the gold had been spirited off to Moscow, destroyed by the Taliban, According to Britain's Art Newspaper, the treasure was seen only once in a quarter of a century. That was in 1982 by Mr Sariyannidis - the man who discovered it and compares it to King Tutankhamun's tomb. Some reports say it was shown in the late 1980s to a group of ambassadors in Kabul.

The Taliban apparently tried and failed to gain access to the gold, estimated to be worth $90m (£54m). The interim government's Finance Minister, Ashraf Ghani, has said officials "very courageously blocked the codes [to stop the Taliban entering] after they captured Kabul in September 1996, and were badly beaten".

The news the gold is intact has clearly delighted the US-backed Afghan transitional government but it is regarded as a mixed blessing by others.

Afghanistan is still awash with arms, militias and internal conflicts. "Some people think it's better at the moment to keep quiet about the gold," said one Western source.