Stolen antiquities are being smuggled out of the country each year at an alarming rate, a national conference on protecting cultural relics has been told. Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, told the meeting: 'The situation in China is very grave indeed,' according to Xinhua. The three-day meeting in Xian ended yesterday. Although authorities have pledged that corrupt museum officials and tomb-raiding criminals will be dealt with severely, experts said looting and thefts are widespread and the nation is still losing its treasures. Officials said the smuggling syndicates had become more professional and international and were using more daring methods to get relics out of the country. They said foreign diplomatic staff based in Beijing were also involved in smuggling, but refused to name any of those involved. Most of the smuggled relics flowed to the United States, Australia, Britain, France and South Korea, the officials said. Mr Shan said that since 1998, a number of museum staff had been responsible for the theft of 268 ancient relics. Museum staff typically sell them to local brokers, who then smuggle the goods abroad. In June, in what state media described as the largest theft case of cultural artefacts since 1949, Li Haitao, head of security at the Waibamiao museum complex on the Qing dynasty imperial estate at Chengde was arrested for stealing 158 relics during his 12-year tenure. Some of the stolen items ended up on the black market and were spotted in an auction in Hong Kong. Illegal excavations of ancient tombs and other heritage sites were also widespread, said Mr Shan, adding that many tombs were destroyed after the raids. He said stone sculptures and relics in temples in remote rural areas are particularly vulnerable because of the lack of security. Official records show 252 such artefacts have been stolen since 1996, 68 per cent of all recorded stolen relics. Last year, a 12-metre-tall Song dynasty pagoda in Huachi county, Gansu province, was stolen from a temple and smuggled to Taiwan, Xinhua said. The pagoda has since been found and returned. Also last year, customs officers confiscated more than 8,780 items classed as protected artefacts, Xinhua said. Official figures show 50,000 smuggled artefacts were seized between 1993 and last year.