FILE - Tourists stroll past the remains of Pompeii's forum.
FILE - Tourists stroll past the remains of Pompeii's forum.

ROME - Italian police have seized more than 2,000 ancient artifacts in a nationwide sweep aimed at dismantling a criminal gang that was operating throughout southern Italy and dealing in stolen archeological treasures.

During their operation, police discovered a house that had been turned into a private museum packed with some 550 ancient finds, a police statement said.

Three people were arrested.The investigation was launched after part of a fresco was stolen from the House of Neptune in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near Naples, police said.

Italian media reported the loss of part of a fresco of Apollo and Artemis in Pompeii last March. The police, who dubbed their investigation "Artemis", did not say if they had recovered the art work, which was hacked out of a wall.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini hailed Wednesday's operation, which was coordinated by anti-mafia officials in Naples and involved some 142 police searches in more than 20 Italian cities and towns.

"[This] has led to the recovery of thousands of archeological items and defeated a criminal organization dedicated to plundering southern Italy's cultural heritage," Franceschini said in a statement.

Among the items recovered were decorated vases, coins and fragments of ancient buildings. Police also seized metal detectors and items they said had been used for illegal digs.

Underlining the challenge faced by Italy in protecting its vast cultural wealth, authorities said on Wednesday that heavy rain had washed away part of a garden in Pompeii, which was buried under volcanic ash nearly 2,000 years ago.

The damage occurred in an area that was due to be restored under the Great Pompeii Project - a 105 million euro ($119.9 million) plan partly funded by the European Union.The project has been delayed due to legal squabbles over who should carry out the work.

($1 = 0.8757 euros)