Macedonia arrests traffickers of icons, archaeological items

Macedonian police arrested 14 people suspected of being part of a ring stealing and trafficking Orthodox Christian icons and archaeological artefacts, the interior ministry said on Wednesday.

Those arrested, who include two employees of the national directorate for cultural patrimony protection, a museum employee and a policeman, were charged with forming a "criminal enterprise," along with "destruction, appropriation and illegal export of cultural patrimony as well as with abuse of power," Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska told journalists.

Skopje was still looking for two Serbian nationals believed to be part of the same ring.

During searches carried out at 23 locations police found 14 icons of different sizes, as well as 121 coins one of which portrayed Alexander the Great, the Macedonian fourth-century BC warrior-king.

The traffickers were digging out the items of priceless archaeological value at the sites of Demir Kapija, in central Macedonia, Sveti Nikola and Kavadarvi, both in the south, as well as in the capital Skopje, the minister said.

They were being sold in both Macedonia and abroad, she added.

Icons are believed to have been stolen in a series of thefts from several Macedonian churches that intensified since autumn 2012, Jankuloska said.

The exact value of the stolen objects will be known after an expertise of competent authorities.

Local media estimated that some 20,000 items being part of Macedonia's religious and cultural patrimony, whose value is in some cases measured in hundreds of thousands of euros, were stolen during the past four years.

There are more than 5,000 officially registered archaeological sites in the small, landlocked former Yugoslav republic, independent since 1991.

Macedonian authorities had said they believed that since independence the country has lost more than a million archaeological artefacts to Europe's black markets.