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Gunmen raid Ancient Olympia Museum

Two masked gunmen have stormed into a small museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece smashing display cases with hammers and making off with dozens of antiquities up to 3,200 years old.

It was the second major museum theft in as many months in debt-crippled Greece, and a culture ministry trade unionist said spending cuts have compromised security at hundreds of museums and ancient sites across the country.

The robbers targeted the museum of the ancient Games at Olympia, a few hundred yards away from the world heritage site's main museum that contains priceless statues and bronze artefacts excavated at the holiest sanctuary of ancient Greece. Officials said 65 artefacts were stolen by the robbers, who tied up the only site guard, a 48-year-old woman.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation after the morning robbery, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.

Police in Olympia and neighbouring regions set up roadblocks for the thieves, who are believed to have escaped in a car driven by an accomplice, while a police helicopter combed the area and special investigators were rushed in from Athens.

"According to the results of the investigation so far, unknown persons, this morning, at about 07:34 am, immobilised the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring," a police statement said.

A culture ministry official said the stolen antiquities dated from the 9th to the 4th centuries BC, apart from the seal-ring which dates to Late Bronze Age Mycenaean times and was found in another part of southern Greece.

"They took small objects made of bronze and pottery - figurines, vases and lamps - and the ring," the official said. "The artefacts were behind reinforced glass panels which fracture like a car windscreen, and the thieves grabbed whatever small objects they could reach through the holes they opened."

A spokesman for museum guards urged emergency government action to protect historic sites and museums. "The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world's heritage" said Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards' union. "There are no funds for new guard hirings," he said.

The flame for each modern Olympics is lit in a special ceremony at ancient Olympia - and the ceremony for the London Games will be held there on May 10.

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