An illegal immigrant was jailed for two-and-a-half years yesterday for attempting to steal a rhino head from Norwich Castle museum in a raid planned by a London gang.

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Dressed in black and wearing a woollen hat, Iraqi Nihad Mahmod and three other men were seen standing near the mahogany case containing the rhino head on February 20.

The museum was hosting a group of Cambridge zoologists who remarked how unusual it was for the rhino to have its original horn rather than a replica.

Rhino horns are prized in China for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities and Norwich Crown Court heard the head could fetch up to £500,000 on the black market.

When the delegation of zoologists left the natural history gallery for the museum’s rotunda, the glass panel of the cabinet was smashed open and they saw the four men, now wearing balaclavas, running towards the exit and shouting at people to get out of their way.

Kevin Eastwick, prosecuting, told the court how two of the men were struggling to carry the head which was partly filed with clay, while the other two men sprinted ahead.

Museum staff tried to stop them, with one attempting to trip up the would-be thieves and the men dropped the head and ran off.

They escaped in a dark saloon car which was spotted near Argyle Street off Rouen Road. A man got out and tore off the car’s fake number plates which were left on the road.

Police caught 21-year-old Mahmod from London after finding his fingerprints on the plates.

Mahmod, who came to England as a 16-year-old on the back of a lorry, told the probation service how he was homeless and an Irishman called Patrick had asked him to go on the job to repay a debt.

Ross Burrows, mitigating, said: “He is led into a life of crime because he has got to survive. He is desperate. He is on the peripheral edge of an organised gang. He is the fall guy. The whole incident is extremely sad.”

Recorder Judge Peter Jacobs said the theft was a crime which targeted the country’s national heritage.

He told Mahmod he had no future in Britain and would be deported back to Iraq.

The head was damaged when dropped, but has been repaired and a replica horn has replaced the original one.

The attempted theft followed a theft from Ipswich Museum where a rhino horn was stolen, while raids have also happened at museums in Europe including ones in Florence and Brussels.

tom.bristow@archant.co.uk

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