|An official at the Cave of Skulls (photo IAA)|
A gang that was stealing ancient relics from a desert cave - close to where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls were found - has been arrested, Israeli officials say. The alleged thieves were caught as they were leaving a site known as the "Cave of Skulls", halfway down a sheer cliff. [...] Robbers have long been targeting archaeological sites in the remote area [...] but Israeli authorities say this is the first time in decades that suspects have been caught in the act on the desert cliffs.It is believed the men were searching for scrolls to sell to collectors. It is reported that the gang was caught when search and rescue workers on a training exercise in the desert spotted suspicious movement near a cave and informed the antiquities service who then placed the area under surveillance and caught the thieves red-handed.
They were arrested while returning to the top, carrying looted artefacts, as well as "lighting equipment and ropes" and "sophisticated metal detectors". The press release said the suspects had caused "tremendous damage" by digging through earth dating to the Roman period, 2,000 years ago, and the Chalcolithic period, 5,000 years ago. It added that the suspects "demonstrated considerable expertise in reaching the cave by climbing and rappelling down the cliff". The gang were all young men from Seir, a village near Hebron, the press release said. The arrests were made last weekend, and the charges were made public on Sunday.The men were also charged with illegally entering Israeli territory without a permit. If found guilty, the men could get five years imprisonment (Ilan Ben Zion, ' Six busted for plundering artifacts from Dead Sea cave', The Times of Israel December 7, 2014).