31/10/2011 10:22 GMT | Updated 31/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Priceless Libyan Treasure, Including 7,000 Ancient Coins, Plundered In Benghazi During Uprising

A priceless collection of more than 7,000 ancient coins and other irreplaceable artefacts have been found missing from a bank vault in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

The theft of the treasures, many of which date from the time of Alexander the Great, is one of the biggest heists in archaeological history, according to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO.

The ancient treasures were plundered during the Libyan uprising - but the details have only begun to emerge this week.

The National Transitional Council is believed to have kept the entire incident quiet until recently for fear of tarnishing their image while they were battling Colonel Gaddafi's regime. Now they have announced that some of the coins, known as the Treasure of Benghazi, may have been found in Egypt.

Details emerged last week at a conference held by Unesco, in Paris. At the time, a fire at the bank was blamed as part of the fighting. Now it looks more likely that the fire was part of an elaborate planned robbery. Fadel al-Hasi, Libya's acting minister for antiquities, told the BBC there were suspicions the robbery could even have been an inside job.

Burglars drilled through the concrete ceiling of the Commercial Bank of Benghazi vault to reach the coins, and only targeted the most valuable items. The bank's employees have been questioned several times, al-Hasi said.

The collection included more than 10,000 pieces. From Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic coins, to jewellery and precious stones. The treasure was excavated from the temple of Artemis in the Roman city of Cyrene, near Benghazi.

Al-Hasi alerted Interpol about the theft in July. International antiquities markets are being monitored but there have also been reports of precious coins appearing at the daily gold market in Benghazi.

Theft and damage of heritage items have become a feature of regime change in recent years. Similar problems were seen in Egypt during the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and in Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein.