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THE ugly lump of metal was not much to look at, but "treasure" was the word on every mind.

When fortune hunters fished out the bell-shaped mass from the South China Sea in May 1993, everyone thought that they had uncovered the legendary Yamashita treasure.

President Fidel Ramos set up a task force to examine the metal. Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) described it as a two-tonne block of platinum estimated to be worth US$480 million, while NBI chief Epimaco Velasco believed that it was part of the Yamashita treasure.

According to popular legend, Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita looted the national treasures of South-east Asian countries which Japan conquered during the early stages of World War II.

He supposedly brought his war booty to Philippines. He was said to have buried his treasure in more than 100 different sites around the country as his army escaped from the advancing Allied troops in 1945.

Yamashita's trove of jewellery, gold and other precious metals was believed to be worth US$100-US$200 billion. When the general was hanged in 1946 as a war criminal, the exact whereabouts of his treasure remained a mystery that attracted countless fortune seekers.

Some treasure hunters were even willing to risk their lives to find the famous treasure. Two Filipinos were buried alive in the southern Philippine city of General Santos when an 8-m-deep tunnel they were digging caved in.

American treasure hunters claimed that Yamashita made use of war prisoners to bury part of the booty in booby-trapped underground chambers near Manila. The chambers were then sealed, trapping the prisoners inside.

But Manila's National Museum archaeologist Eusebio Dizon said that he never found any evidence of the treasure in the 18 years he spent looking for artefacts on land and sea.

According to former first lady Imelda Marcos, the Yamashita treasure fell into the hands of her late husband. She said that Mr Marcos obtained his wealth from the treasure which he had used to trade in precious metals. However, she refused to divulge how her husband discovered the treasure or how much it was worth.

On the other hand, those who were skeptical of Mrs Marcos' claims said that the gold story was nothing more than a cover-up for Mr Marcos' plunder of the Philippine Treasury during his presidency.

And what about the lump of metal? It was no treasure. The metal was later identified to be iron. Its worth -- a measly US$590!

So the legend of Yamashita's gold continues. Who knows, the gold may still be buried out there, somewhere, waiting to be unearthed.

(Based on actual newspaper reports.)


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