The British armed forces have returned historical artefacts dating back as far as the Bronze Age to Afghan museums, after they were stolen and smuggled abroad, it was announced today.
The precious cargo, weighing more than two tonnes and containing 843 individual objects, left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire last week on board a C17 transport plane, and was then transferred from the UK military base Camp Bastion in Helmand to Kabul by Hercules aircraft.
Prime Minister David Cameron and President Hamid Karzai confirmed its safe arrival at a press conference in the Afghan capital this morning.
Some of the items were looted from Afghanistan's museums during civil wars in the country over the past two decades, while others came from illegal excavations of archaeological sites. They are thought to have been spirited out of Afghanistan for sale on the international black market.
The consignment included objects found in three separate seizures by customs officials as they were being smuggled into the UK, while other items came to light thanks to investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police. Additional objects were saved by private individuals.
Experts at the British Museum identified them as originating in Afghanistan and they were stored at the museum in London for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul. Some featured in the British Museum's Afghanistan exhibition last year.
Among the most prized items are first-century AD furniture decorations known as the Begram Ivories and an important sculpture of Buddha from the second or third century AD, both stolen from Afghan museums during the 1992-94 civil war following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The oldest artefacts date back more than 4,000 years to the late third millennium BC and include Bronze Age cosmetic flasks, stamp seals and statuettes. There are also bowls, coins, metal and pottery vessels from the Islamic medieval period.
British Museum director Neil MacGregor said: "I am delighted that these important artefacts have been safely returned to the National Museum in Kabul.
"This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict."
A memorandum of understanding between the British Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan was signed in 2011 to ensure that efforts will continue to identify and return further artefacts to Kabul.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said this week's operation was the first time the military has assisted in the transportation of historic artefacts to Afghanistan - a task previously undertaken in 2009 by the International Red Cross.
"The transfer of these items is a vote of confidence and a step forward in Afghanistan's journey towards normalisation," said Mr Hammond.
"It is fitting that the British armed forces should play a role in their return, alongside the British Museum and others.
"For UK forces to be a part of the process is a symbol of how Britain stands squarely behind Afghanistan in its efforts to become a country capable of standing on its own two feet."