Egyptian businessman Rateb arrested for funding illegal excavations

The promiment figure was linked with a criminal antiquities ring run by a former MP

Egyptian authorities arrested prominent businessman Hassan Rateb in connection with the illegal excavation and smuggling of antiquities.

Mr Rateb financed the excavations carried out by Alaa Hassanein, a former member of parliament, and his brother at the historical Cairo district of Masr El Qadeema, security officials said.

The pair were arrested last week and prosecutors on Monday ordered them, along with three other suspects, to be held in police custody for 15 days, pending the completion of the investigation.

An inventory prepared by government antiquities experts of the contents of a secret warehouse used by the suspects revealed artifacts dating back to ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman eras as well as the Islamic period.

They included tablets with hieroglyphic engravings, pre-historic rocks, surgical needles from the Islamic era and antique vases and statues.

Mr Rateb is a household name in Egypt, especially in the business circles.

After starting the private television network Al Mehwar about 20 years ago, he has heavily invested in the northern and central regions of the Sinai Peninsula.

Illegal archaeological excavations are not uncommon in Egypt, where antiquity sites are spread over almost the entire length of the Nile - from the Mediterranean coast all the way south to the Sudanese border. It's a profitable racket given the worldwide demand for antiquities by private collectors.

There have been a series of incidents in recent years of illegal excavations caving in, burying alive the diggers. Most of such activities are carried out inside private properties.

Egypt has in recent years stepped up efforts to track down stolen artifacts around the world, monitoring auctions in major western cities and pressing authorities there to hand them back.

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