Robbers steal treasures in ram-raid on French cathedral

Oloron-Sainte-Marie (France) (AFP) - Robbers rammed a car into a medieval cathedral in southwest France early Monday, breaking windows and sawing through metal bars to grab silver chalices and other irreplaceable church treasures, local authorities said.

The gang had tied a tree trunk to the front of the car they used to smash through a cathedral door in the town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, municipal official Laurent Paris told AFP.

The Romanesque-Gothic edifice is a historical monument and was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998 as part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

Once inside, the thieves helped themselves to some of the cathedral's many chalices, crosses and other ceremonial objects, much of it gold, as well as a 18th-century nativity scene and a collection of priestly garments, including a rare cape donated by the 16th century King Francis I.

The treasures had been kept in a chapel, behind a steel grid whose "bars were sawn through," Paris said.

A working church, Oloron-Sainte-Marie is a favourite stopover for pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The town with its 10,000-odd residents lies 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the Spanish border, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.

"The mayor was informed at about 2:00 am (0100 GMT) after locals woken by the noise and the cathedral alarm alerted the police," Paris said.

- 'Shocked' -

Witnesses saw three individuals take part in the heist, he added.

Police found the robbers' car abandoned near the crime scene, with a tree trunk inside.

"Those responsible will be found and punished," Culture Minister Franck Riester promised on Twitter.

"I share the emotion of France's Catholics who are legitimately shocked by this theft and the damage."

This was the first time the cathedral had been attacked, said Paris.

Experts will take stock of the loot taken, but Paris described the loss as "considerable".

"Over and above the monetary value, residents now find themselves cut off from their history and their heritage," he said.

The cathedral is best known for one of its oldest remaining features: a Romanesque portal sculpted in the 12th century, when construction on the building began.

The church burned in the 13th century, and again in the early 14th. It was pillaged at the end of the 16th century during France's religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots.

Fixed and remodelled several times up until the 18th century, it was fully restored in the 19th century.

According to the website of the tourist agency for the Bearn-Pyrenees region, the cathedral's valuables -- statues, ornaments and items used in religious rites -- are divided between two chapels housed in the cathedral.

In August, robbers stole bronze bells from the steeples of churches in Provence.