Fri, Sep 30, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Treasure hunt on Chilean isle touches off gold fever

AFP , SANTIAGO

The claimed discovery of a US$10 billion 18th century treasure trove on Chile's Robinson Crusoe island has touched off an epidemic of gold fever among treasure hunters, residents and officials.

The modern-day gold rush began on Monday when Chilean security firm Wagner announced that its ground-scanning robot had located a legendary pirate hideaway containing a lost bounty of jewels and gold coins.

Robinson Crusoe lies 600km west of Chile's central coast in the Pacific, and was a refuge for corsairs crossing the ocean as well as the home of Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, the Crusoe of Daniel Defoe's famous adventure story.

According to legend, Spanish navigator Juan Esteban Ubilla y Echeverria stashed the fortune, amassed over centuries by pirates on the island in 1715. It was then found by a British sailor, Cornelius Webb, and taken to another area of the island to be reburied.

Legend has it the booty, weighing 800 tonnes, includes two papal rings and a storied jewel known as the "Rose of the Winds."

Members of an expedition organized by Wagner salvage believe they have pinpointed the site, according to attorney Fernando Uribe Echeverria, who is advising the team.

"It is the greatest treasure in history," Echeverria said, adding that searchers would start digging in a matter of days once permits had been granted. He claimed the treasure was worth US$10 billion.

In 1998, an expedition led by Dutchman Bernard Kaiser with US and Chilean colleagues failed in their bid to track down the same treasure, but Wagner's expedition has earned extra credibility due to the reputation of its sophisticated robot, which has already solved several crime mysteries in Chile.

But even though the treasure seekers have yet to unearth a single gold coin, the lure of hidden fortune has inflamed passions among the island's 600 inhabitants, mainly fishermen.

"People here are talking about nothing but the discovery of the treasure and what they could do with the money," the island's director of tourism, Calos Satto, said.

Wagner has kept the exact location of its "discovery" a closely guarded secret, pending authorization from the government to commence excavation. The company has said only that "tonnes of jewels and gold" have been found by the robot in the region of the "three points."

According to two articles in Chilean law, the loot is either to be split evenly between the finders and the state, or handed over entirely to the tax office.

Education Minister Sergio Bitar has stated publicly that the government should get the cash. Wagner insists that it can keep half of what it digs up. The company says it will donate its part of the treasure to charity, insisting that its only interest is publicity for its robot design.

Mayor Gonzalez, for his part, has demanded that half the proceeds from the treasure be handed out to the islanders, with each one receiving more than US$8 million.

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