LYON (AFP).- Police have arrested 101 people and recovered 19,000 stolen artefacts in an international crackdown on gangs trafficking art stolen from war-stricken countries, museums and archaeological sites, Interpol said Wednesday.
The massive operation, carried out in 103 countries, led to seizures of coins from different periods, archaeological objects, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings and fossils, the global police agency said in a statement.
Among others, Afghan customs officials seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport as they were about to depart for Istanbul.
Spanish police, working with their Colombian counterparts, recovered a number of rare pre-Columbian objects acquired through looting, including a unique Tumaco gold mask, gold figurines and ancient jewellery.
"Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, and the Colombian authorities carried out house searches in Bogota, resulting in the seizure of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects, the largest ever seizure in the countrys history," said the statement.
Argentinian police seized 2,500 ancient coins while investigating an online sale and Latvian police another 1,375 coins.
"Organised crime has many faces," said Interpol Secretary General Juergen Stock.
"The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks.
"You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money."
The trade in artefacts also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud and financing organised crime networks, said Stock.
Some 300 investigations have been opened as part of the crackdown coordinated by the World Customs Organization, Interpol and Europol.
"Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods," said the statement.
In total, 8,670 cultural objects available for online sale were seized -- almost a third of the total number of artefacts recovered in the operation.
"Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet - either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that law enforcement all work together to combat it," said Interpol.
© Agence France-Presse