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KYIV, Ukraine — The heist began when a mysterious man in a white lab coat confirmed up on the museum.

A squad of Russian troopers stood behind him, with weapons, watching eagerly.

Utilizing lengthy tweezers and particular gloves, the person within the white coat fastidiously extracted scores of particular gold artifacts greater than 2,300 years previous from cardboard bins within the cellar of a museum in Melitopol, a southern city in Russian-occupied territory, Ukrainian officers stated. The gold objects have been from the Scythian empire and dated again to the fourth century B.C.

Then the mysterious skilled, the Russian troopers and the gold disappeared.

“The orcs have taken maintain of our Scythian gold,” declared Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fyodorov, utilizing a derogatory time period many Ukrainians reserve for Russian troopers. “This is among the largest and most costly collections in Ukraine, and at the moment we don’t know the place they took it.”

This was hardly the primary assault on Ukrainian tradition because the battle started.

In Mariupol, the city that has been hammered for weeks by Russian forces, officers stated that Russian brokers broke into an artwork museum and stole masterpiece work, a well-known sculpture and several other extremely valued Christian icons.

Throughout Ukraine, officers stated, dozens of Orthodox church buildings, nationwide monuments and cultural heritage websites have been destroyed. In a single city close to Kyiv, Borodianka, Russian troopers shot the bust of a well-known Ukrainian poet within the head.

On Saturday, Ukrainian officers stated that greater than 250 cultural establishments had been broken or destroyed.

However maybe no cultural heist has been as brazen as what unfolded in Melitopol only a few days in the past.

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Based on Leila Ibrahimova, the director of the Melitopol Museum of Native Historical past, the difficulty began in late February, when Russian forces shelled the airport and took over town. Troopers went on a rampage, smashing into supermarkets, shops and houses.

Many of the metropolis’s residents hid inside their homes. However just a few museum staff, together with Ms. Ibrahimova, made their method again to the museum.

It’s a chic, three-story, stone constructing within the previous a part of city, dwelling to 50,000 displays, from Soviet-era medals to previous battle axes. However its prized assortment was a set of uncommon gold ornaments from the Scythians, a nomadic people who based a wealthy, highly effective empire, centered within the Crimean Peninsula, that endured from across the eighth century B.C. to the second century A.D.

It was the Scythian gold that Ms. Ibrahimova was most fearful about.

So she and different employees members secretly hid it and another historic artifacts in cardboard bins, stashing the bins in a dank cellar the place they didn’t suppose anybody would discover it.

“We knew that any second somebody might come into the museum with a weapon,” she stated. So that they labored quick, she stated, as a result of “the gathering is priceless.”

In mid-March, Ms. Ibrahimova stated Russian troops burst into her home with assault rifles, threw a black hood over her head and kidnapped her. After a number of hours of intense questioning, they let her go. Two weeks later she left Melitopol for an space not below Russian management.

However on Wednesday, she obtained a name from a caretaker on the museum. The caretaker stated Russian troopers, together with intelligence officers and a Russian-speaking man in a white lab coat, had come to her home within the morning and ordered her, at gunpoint, to go together with them to the museum.

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They commanded her to take them to the Scythian gold.

The caretaker refused, Ms. Ibrahimova stated. However the man within the white coat discovered the bins anyway with the assistance of a Ukrainian man, collaborating with the Russians, who has been appointed the museum’s new director, she stated. A Russian crew filmed a part of the theft.

“We hid all the pieces however one way or the other they discovered it,” she stated.

What was stolen: not less than 198 gold objects, together with ornaments within the type of flowers; gold plates; uncommon previous weapons; 300-year-old silver cash; and particular medals. She stated lots of the gold artifacts had been given to the Scythians by the Greeks.

Ms. Ibrahimova, who spoke by telephone, sounded despondent as she spoke concerning the Russian invaders.

“Possibly tradition is the enemy for them,” she stated. “They stated that Ukraine has no state, no historical past. They only wish to destroy our nation. I hope they won’t succeed.”

Scythian gold has monumental symbolic worth in Ukraine. Different collections of the artifacts had been saved in vaults within the capital, Kyiv, earlier than the battle broke out. However Ms. Ibrahimova stated occasions unfolded too quick for her museum to spirit out their assortment.

For years now, Ukraine has been locked in a sophisticated dispute with Russia over collections of Scythian gold that a number of museums in Crimea had lent to a museum in Amsterdam. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Ukraine pleaded with the Amsterdam museum to not return the gold. Russia demanded the museum do exactly that. A court docket has dominated in Ukraine’s favor and the gold stays in Amsterdam.

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However historians stated the looting of the artifacts in Melitopol is an much more egregious try and acceptable, and maybe destroy, Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

“The Russians are making a battle with out guidelines,” stated Oleksandr Symonenko, a fellow of Ukraine’s Archaeology Institute and a Scythian specialist. “This isn’t a battle. It’s destroying our life, our nature, our tradition, our business, all the pieces. This a criminal offense.”

The caretaker who refused to assist the Russians was launched on Wednesday after the gold was stolen. However on Friday she was taken away from her home at gunpoint once more, Ms. Ibrahimova stated, shortly after the mayor, who can be in exile, introduced the theft.

She has not been heard from since.

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