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LONDON (Reuters) - The heads of seven European naval veterans' associations have accused Dutch salvage vessels hunting for valuable scrap metal of desecrating the war graves of sailors entombed in three British World War One warships off the Dutch coast.
The Royal Navy ships, HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy, were sunk 22 miles off the Netherlands in 1914 by a German submarine and are the resting place of 1,500 sailors.
In a letter to the Times newspaper this week, the veterans' heads from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Austria said the "sailors should be allowed to rest in peace."
The seven presidents of the associations of European naval veterans said in the letter that that no such desecration would take place in graves on land.
Vice Admiral John McAnally, president of the UK Royal Naval Association, and one of the signatories, said in a separate statement the ship graves "should be treated with due care and respect, and not regarded as a source of profitable scrap metal."
McAnally added: "the fact is sunken ships in international waters are under no jurisdiction. As I am aware, the (British) government shares the same frustration as we do."
The soaring price of metals like copper, aluminum and brass on international markets has made the salvage of scrap a lucrative business.
In Britain, there has been a rising trend of copper cabling being stolen from railway tracks, causing misery for commuters who are being increasingly hit with long delays.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in London said the government "does not condone the unauthorized disturbance of any wreck containing human remains" but had no powers to stop the plunder in this instance.
The spokesman said the government could only act against the looters if they were British passport holders or if they were operating from UK-flagged ships.
British newspapers reported that two salvage vessels operating from the Dutch port of Scheveningen had used heavy-duty claws on cranes to tear through the shipwrecks.
Local divers apparently raised the alarm about the ransacking after seeing the damage being done to one of the North Sea's most popular dive sites.
The MoD said the government was continuing to discuss the issue with the Dutch government.
A spokeswoman for the Dutch infrastructure ministry said Britain had requested the return of materials seized from the salvage ships by Dutch customs authorities, such as a bronze cannon, and that it was the intention of the Netherlands to return what it could.
"These are crooks destroying cultural heritage. We have asked the police to investigate and we are in the middle of that process," said Dolf Muller from the Dutch State Service for Cultural Heritage.
Muller said it was difficult to maintain the law in such a large area of the sea, protecting British World War One ships and other historic vessels too.
"The first step will be to bring the people who have done this to justice," Muller said.
Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis, editing by Paul Casciato