Deep-Diving Grave Robbers May Have Dumped One Thousand WWII Sailors' Bones In a Cemetery

Family members pay their respects to the 915 Dutch soldiers killed in the battle of the Java Sea at the Dutch war cemetery Ereveld in Surabaya on February 27, 2018. The ceremony marks the 76th anniversary of the February 27, 1942 Battle of the Java Sea where the allied American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval forces suffered defeat from the naval armada of Japanese invading forces during World War II. About 2,300 allied forces were killed in the naval battle against Japanese forces in World War II. Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images

Grave robbers may have looted an underwater mass grave of more than 1,000 British and Dutch soldiers killed during the Second World War, Indonesian officials have said.

The site, close to Indonesia, is recognized as a war grave by both the U.K. and the Netherlands as it is where several Dutch and British military vessels were sunk during the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea, when allied nations were fighting Nazi Germany and Nazi-allied Japan.

But according to reports in the British, Dutch and local Indonesian media, parts of the ships have been disappearing from the sea bed in recent years, with looters retrieving copper cables and bronze propellers in what British newspaper The Guardian has branded the "world's biggest grave robbery."

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Divers first sounded the alarm in 2016, after an effort to install commemorative plaques on the vessels had to be aborted when they could not be found. More strikingly, the bones of the British and Dutch troops had also vanished.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials are now excavating a cemetery in the nearby port city of Brondong, in East Java, as well as at least two other sites where the bones may have been dumped, The Guardian reported Tuesday.

It has emerged that dock workers in Brondong may have been hired to cut up warships and work on salvage parts between 2014 and 2016. It was welders in the port that first identified the bones.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry and the Dutch Embassy have refused to comment on the exhumation, but local police have confirmed that officials from both nations are involved.

This week marks the 76th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea, a seven-hour engagement between British, Dutch and Australian allied forces on one side and Japan on the other, off the coast of Indonesia. Japan won the battle, paving the way for an offensive into the Indian Ocean.