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Macedonia's largest-ever antiquities smuggling crackdown busts ring, recovers artifacts

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonian authorities said Friday they had broken up an antiquities smuggling ring and recovered thousands of exceptionally valuable artifacts in the country's largest-ever crackdown on the illicit trade.

Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska said police had charged 29 people, including two police officers and a former mayor, with belonging to an organized ring attempting to sell ill-gotten antiquities abroad.

A police sweep of eight towns early Thursday netted about 4,000 artifacts, some at least 2,000 years old, Jankulovska said.

Culture minister Elizabeta Kanceska-Milevska wouldn't speculate on the artifacts' value, but said they were "of exceptional cultural, historical and archaeological value for this country."

Police had initially detained 48 people, including local politicians and archaeologists, but Jankulovska said criminal charges were filed against only 29. The suspects, aged 26 to 84, will appear before an investigative judge in Skopje's district court later Friday.

Police raided more than 60 homes and confiscated items including about 3,000 coins mainly from Roman times, 20 stone, bronze, copper and marble figurines of various sizes and 160 pieces of bronze jewelry such as bracelets, rings, pendants.

Police also seized old guns and sabers, metal detectors, night-vision goggles, archaeological maps and weapons allegedly used by members of the group.

Police said the suspects planned to sell the illegally excavated artifacts in Greece, Italy and Austria. Police had kept the suspects under surveillance since October.

Antiquities theft is a major problem for Macedonia, which has some 6,000 archaeological sites.