Somme Heritage Centre's artefacts are stolen by visitors
Priceless historical artefacts relating to the First World War have been stolen by visitors to a Co Down museum.
It is believed they were stolen by two middle-aged men who were taking part in a tour of the Somme Heritage Centre in Conlig, Co Down around midday on Saturday.
The stolen pieces include UVF badges, medals, cap badges and armbands from 1913 which had been part of the museum's Ulster Volunteer Force and Home Rule Crisis collection.
Somme Association director Carol Walker described the heist as a "black day for the museum".
It is the first time in the museum's 20-year history that they have been targeted by thieves.
"Not only were these artefacts a valuable part of the museum's extensive collection, but they are part of Ulster's heritage and history and represent a loss to the people of Northern Ireland," Ms Walker said.
"The exhibition tells the story of Ireland pre the First World War and of the political strife at the time, and the museum had some rare and unique pieces on display for everyone to view and appreciate.
"If anyone has any information we would ask them to contact the police or the museum itself."
The museum believe the thieves are two men in their late forties to early fifties, of stocky build, wearing black jackets and driving a black car.
A PSNI spokesman said their inquiries were continuing and urged anyone with information to contact officers in Newtownards.
There was a furious reaction to the theft on the Somme Association's Facebook page, with those responsible blasted as 'vermin' and 'scum'.
North Down DUP councillor Adam Harbinson, who sits on the Advisory Council at the museum, said that he was appalled by the theft.
"The museum tells the story of the brave men and women who fought and died in the service of their king and country," he said.
"I appeal to anyone's who knows anything about this heartless crime to come forward.
"And I appeal to the perpetrators to listen to their conscience and find a way to have the artefacts returned."
The Somme Heritage Centre was opened in Conlig, Co Down in 1994 to tell the story of how both Catholic and Protestant soldiers fought and died together for Britain in First World War trenches. It particularly focuses on three of the volunteer divisions in Ireland, the 10th, 16th Irish divisions and 36th Ulster division. The display includes a replica of a trench and large display of artefacts from the period. It is run by the Somme Association.