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US citizen charged with smuggling ancient Roman mosaic from war-torn Syria

The 18-foot mosaic, which depicts Hercules, was most likely looted from Idlib during the country's ongoing civil war, prosecutors allege
An expert concluded that the ancient mosaic was from the Byzantine period (US Department of Justice)

A US citizen has been charged with smuggling an ancient Roman mosaic that authorities believe was looted from war-torn Syria.

The US Justice Department said in a statement on Saturday that Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi is also being charged with falsely underestimating the mosaic's value in order to avoid import duties.

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Alcharihi has claimed that the 18-foot-long mosaic was part of a larger shipment worth only about $2,200 in total, but federal authorities said the mosaic alone is worth much more than that.

The Justice Department said that Alcharihi "misrepresented the quality of the mosaic, including what the mosaic depicted" in official customs paperwork.

The mosaic was seized by FBI investigators at Alcharihi's house in Palmdale, California in 2016. The US Attorney's Office for the Central District of California believes that the artwork was most likely looted from Syria during the ongoing civil war.

An expert retained by the government concluded last year that the artwork "was an authentic mosaic from the Byzantine period… and was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib", the office said in a statement.

The antiquities trade

Museums and other sites featuring ancient antiquities around Syria have been under threat during the country's near-decade-long civil war.

"The antiquities trade is a big and lucrative one and requires little complicated equipment," a report by the Atlanta Council, a Washington-based think tank, explained.

With at least 400 archaeological sites in and around Idlib, the city has been of particular interest to looters.

"The whole province of Idlib is rich in archaeological artifacts, some of whose history dates back to the fourth millennium BC, and the site of al-Lataminah whose history goes back to the Stone Age lies to its south," the group said. 

Egypt has also long struggled to stop smugglers from looting and selling ancient relics. Earlier this month, another US citizen was indicted for allegedly trying to smuggle hundreds of Egyptian artifacts inside a "dirt-caked suitcase" through New York's JFK airport. 

Prosecutors said Ashraf Omar Eldarir, 47, was being charged on two counts of smuggling. One of the charges was related to the incident in JFK, which took place in January, while the other was over an earlier trip involving the smuggling of a single artifact - an ancient Egyptian polychrome relief.  

If convicted, Eldarir faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail for each of the two counts.