Armed robbers stole more than 60 priceless artefacts including a gold ring from a Greek museum dedicated to the ancient Olympic Games on Friday, prompting the country's culture minister to resign.
Two masked men took advantage of the fact the building was unguarded for an hour in the early morning, knocked out the alarm, then overpowered the museum's sole female guard when she arrived for her shift, officials said.
"There were two of them, and they had a gun," Olympia Mayor Thymios Kotzias told Flash Radio.
A staff unionist later told ANA that a Kalashnikov assault rifle had been used by the robbers.
"We must wait and see what the local archaeology supervisor will say, but the items were of incalculable value," Kotzias said.
It was the second major theft to embarrass Greek culture officials in a month, prompting Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos to offer his resignation.
"This is a very unpleasant day for us," said the culture ministry's general secretary Lina Mendoni, who rushed to the museum alongside the minister, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) southwest of Athens in the Peloponnese peninsula.
"It's a tragic day for the archaeology family and the ministry," she said.
Greece, rich in archaeological heritage, has been targeted by antiquity smugglers for decades.
Authorities have long been unable to adequately guard key sites such as museums and Byzantine churches scattered across the country, but austerity measures Greece is implementing under its international bailout have forced further cutbacks.
"Clearly the museum's security was insufficient ... to guard a global treasure," Olympia mayor Kotzias later told state television.
A ministry unionist said museums nationwide were over 1,500 guards short of a full complement after over two years of public sector layoffs imposed by the government to address the country's debt crisis.
"All museums have suffered cuts, both in guards and archaeologists, the staff are no longer enough to operate at full shifts," said Ioanna Frangou, general secretary of the union of short-term culture ministry staff.
Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
The incident occurred at the town's second museum, which showcases nearly 500 objects related to the Games, such as clay vessels and bronze discs used in the events, stone tablets and bronze statues of athletes.
The police said "bronze and clay objects and a gold ring" had been removed from display cases at the museum, built on a forested hilltop on the outskirts of the small town of Olympia.
Another official put the number of objects taken at over sixty.
The police placed traffic checkpoints in the area and were examining the museum's cameras for clues, the semi-state Athens News Agency said.
The main Olympia museum, which is better guarded, features statues, architectural elements and offerings from the sprawling ancient complex where the Games were held from at least 776 BC to 393 AD, when they were abolished by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius.
The flame of the London 2012 Olympics is to be lit in a ceremony amid the ruins of the Temple of Hera, near the ancient stadium, on May 10.
In that case, the thief or thieves knocked out the alarm system and forced open a balcony door at the back of the building, which is located across from one of Athens top hotels.
The gallery was on reduced security staffing owing to a strike.
The government confirmed Geroulanos had submitted his resignation over the latest incident, but it had not been immediately accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
Source: AFP Global Edition