CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptian authorities have accused Belgian diplomats of damaging a 40 million-year-old whale fossil when they allegedly drove over the remains in a protected desert area, an official said Monday. Belgian officials denied any damage was done.
Mohamed Ibrahim, an official in the Ministry of Environment, said the diplomats in four-wheel-drive vehicles ran over the fossil in July after ignoring signs warning visitors not to drive in the Wadi el-Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, protected area and UNESCO World Heritage site located about 93 miles outside of Cairo.
The Belgian Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Cairo denied the vehicles caused any damage to the fossil. Foreign Ministry spokesman Marc Michielsen said the two diplomatic-plated all-terrain vehicles were in the area but "did not leave the road."
"They were not aware that the area was a protected area," Michielsen said. "It seems the area was not cordoned off, and no notice or guards were present."
Egyptian and Belgian authorities both said the incident took place in July. It was unclear why Egyptian officials waited until now to make the allegations.
Michielsen said Egyptian authorities sent a letter to Belgian authorities in mid-July, which Belgian authorities answered Aug. 5 by saying the diplomats did not damage any fossils.
"Since then we have not received any reaction," Michielsen said.
Ibrahim, who works in the Environmental Ministry's Natural Protected Zones office, said the Egyptian prosecutor's office has estimated the damage at $325,000 and has demanded Belgium pay that amount in compensation.
"The financial value doesn't really matter. What matters is the historical value," he said.
Wadi el-Hitan contains fossils of the extinct suborder of whales, the archaeoceti, that date back about 40 million years. UNESCO says the fossils show the evolution of the whale from a land-based mammal to an ocean-based one.
UNESCO declared the site, discovered in 1936, a World Heritage site in 2005.