Bulgarian officials said Friday they had recovered over 5,600 smuggled antiquities and arrested 22 members of two international smuggling rings in a joint operation with Turkey and France.
A tip-off by the Bulgarian services eighteen months ago has led to the dismantling of "two international organized crime groups with members of different nationalities engaged in the uncovering, collecting, smuggling and sale of illegally acquired cultural artefacts," Bulgaria's interior ministry said in a statement.
Twenty-two gang members were detained after searches in 11 towns in Bulgaria, and four abroad, uncovered over 5,600 precious objects -- coins, jewelry, ceramic and metal vessels and other archeological artefacts dating back to antiquity.
"This is one of the largest such operations conducted so far," the ministry statement said, adding that searches were still ongoing in Bulgaria.
No details were given as to the nationality but investigators said there were arrests in France and Turkey as well as in Bulgaria and that some of the detained gang members were from France and elsewhere.
The artefacts came mainly from sites in Bulgaria and Turkey and were smuggled out to be sold in Western Europe, mostly in France, Germany and Britain.
Some 20 metal detectors and other excavation equipment were also confiscated during the searches, the ministry said.
Lack of funds for official archeological works since the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989 has led to the looting of many rich archeological sites across the country.
According to experts, the artefacts are smuggled abroad and traded in some of the world's largest auctions houses.