Two masked gunmen stormed into a small museum at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on Friday, smashing display cases with hammers and making off with dozens of antiquities up to 3,200 years old, authorities said.

It was the second major museum theft in as many months in debt-crippled Greece, and a culture ministry unionist said spending cuts have compromised security at hundreds of museums and ancient sites across the country. With unemployment at 21 per cent and Greece's economy in its fifth year of recession, crime, poverty and homeless rates also have been increasing.

Friday's robbers targeted the museum of the ancient Games at Olympia, not far from the world heritage site's main museum that contains priceless statues and bronze artifacts excavated at the holiest sanctuary of ancient Greece. 

Officials said 65 artifacts were stolen by the robbers, who tied up the only site guard, a 48-year-old woman.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation after the morning robbery, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. Geroulanos travelled on Friday to ancient Olympia, some 340 km southwest of Athens.

"This is a very sad day ... a tragedy," ministry Secretary-General Lina Mendoni said.

Roadblock set up, helicopter search

Police in Olympia and neighbouring regions set up roadblocks for the thieves, who are believed to have escaped in a car driven by an accomplice, while a police helicopter combed the area and special investigators were rushed in from Athens.

"According to the results of the investigation so far, unknown persons, this morning, at about 07:34 a.m., immobilized the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring," a police statement said.

A culture ministry official said the stolen antiquities dated from the 9th to the 4th centuries B.C., apart from the seal-ring which dates to Late Bronze Age Mycenaean times and was found in another part of southern Greece.

"They took small objects made of bronze and pottery — figurines, vases and lamps — and the ring," the official said. "The artifacts were behind reinforced glass panels which fracture like a car windscreen, and the thieves grabbed whatever small objects they could reach through the holes they opened."

A spokesman for museum guards urged emergency government action to protect historic sites and museums, warning that spending cuts taken to save the country from bankruptcy have eroded security. 

"The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world's heritage" said Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards' union.

"There are no funds for new guard hirings," he said. "There are 2,000 of us, and there should be 4,000, while many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don't have optimum protection — even though guards are doing their very best to protect our heritage.

Poorly informed thieves

Officials said the robbers seemed to have poor information on the museum, asking the guard where they could get golden wreaths and a valuable stamp collection — which are not part of the display. 

"They seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a holdup" rather than a professional museum heist, the ministry official told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.

The ancient Olympics were the most important sporting festival in ancient Greece, held every four years and lasting up to five days. They started in 776 B.C. and lasted until A.D. 394 when Roman emperor Theodosius abolished the festival, deeming it pagan. The site hosted an Olympic event during the Athens 2004 Games, when the shot-put was held in the ancient stadium.

Sporting authorities are to hold a ceremony at the museum on May 10 to light the Olympic flame for the London Games.

Olympia Mayor Efthimios Kotzas urged authorities to improve security at the site.

"The level of security is indeed lacking," Kotzas told state-run NET television. "These are treasures. A piece of world heritage has been lost thanks to these thieves ... I think [authorities] should have been more mindful and the security should have been more serious."

Friday's robbery is the second major museum theft in the past two months in Greece. In January, thieves made off with artworks by 20th century masters Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the country's National Gallery in central Athens.

In that pre-dawn heist, the burglars also took a pen and ink drawing of a religious scene by Italian 16th century painter Guglielmo Caccia. A fourth work by Mondrian also was removed from the National Art Gallery in one of the best-guarded areas of central Athens, but the thieves abandoned it as they fled. No arrests have been made.

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Onlookers and Greek police gather outside the antiquities museum in Ancient Olympia where two masked armed robbers tied up a guard and made off with dozens of artifacts. Friday's robbery is the second major museum theft in the past two months in Greece. (Dimitris Papaioannou/Associated Press)