Two 1,500-year-old terracotta statues of Hindu god Vishnu, bound for an exhibition in Paris, have been stolen while in the custody of Air France at the Zia International Airport (ZIA), embarrassing Bangladeshi as well as French authorities.
Named "Vishnu" and "Bust of Vishnu", the statues are from the Gupta era of the seventh century. They were discovered in a dig at Mahasthangarh of Bogra district and were in the custody of National Museum in Dhaka.
The two statues were moved to the airport premises recently to be part of the consignment headed for Paris.
Authorities fear a conspiracy, as there has been a vociferous opposition from sections of artists, art critics and the intelligentsia to a government-to-government exhibition being planned in Paris.
Despite these protests that at one stage took the art connoisseurs to the court, the government was sending the statues along with 143 other artefacts to the Guimet Museum in the French capital under a deal signed with France.
In the first phase, it sent 42 relics on December 1, which were taken to the airport under tight security.
Their insurance value totalled 45,000 euros (around $65,000), said The Daily Star on Monday, quoting sources at the cultural ministry.
The civil aviation authorities formed a five-member investigation committee on Sunday to report on the heist within the next three days.
"I had committed myself to bringing those back home safely. But I am shocked that such an unpleasant incident has occurred even before sending them," Education and Cultural Affairs Adviser Ayub Quadri said.
A statement from the French Embassy in Dhaka described the disappearance of the box as "highly suspicious" and said it could be the result of "a conspiracy to embarrass France and Bangladesh".
Shamsuzzaman Khan, former director general of the National Museum, said: "Those are masterpieces and very valuable to our cultural heritage and social history".
Different sources said it was almost impossible to make off with the container (wooden box number five) of the Vishnu statues weighing 64 kg without a car.
Abdullah Al Hasan, general manager of cargo terminal at the airport, said that only authorized vehicles of civil aviation authorities, Bangladesh Biman, Air France, Voyager Airlines, police and other government agencies were deployed during that time.
Abdul Kuddus, senior conservation officer of Varendra Museum, first noticed that one out of the 13 boxes was missing in the cargo flight at around 1 pm on Saturday, said sources at the cultural ministry and law enforcers.
Kuddus was to travel with the artefacts as the government courier.
At around 8 pm, on Sunday, the empty box of the Vishnu statues was found floating in a ditch beside the runway.
The authorities have so far detained 11 people for quizzing in connection with the heist.
Earlier on Friday evening, Homebound, the shipper agent hired by the French government, carried the 145 artefacts in 13 boxes from the National Museum at Shahbagh to the cargo village at the airport.