Antananarivo - Police have arrested five people in less than a month for possession of human bones in Madagascar, after the pillaging of cemeteries in the north of the island state, authorities said on Thursday.

“A week ago we arrested three Malagasy men with six kilograms of human bones. They said they'd heard a white foreigner wanted to buy such bones, but they'd never seen him and didn't know his name,” said police commander Francio Marovavy from Nosy Be, a small island off the northern coast.

Authorities made similar arrests in the country's north-west three weeks ago.

“We apprehended two men for human bone theft. One had a bag with nine femurs,” chief police commissioner Alexandre Rabeharisoa of western town Besalampy told AFP.

Some of the bones were stolen from a prisoners' cemetery on nearby Nosy Lava island and others from public graves on Nosy Voalavo island, where six bodies have disappeared. Both are off the northwestern coast.

These were the first arrests for possession of human bones, despite an increase in grave robberies in recent years.

Law enforcers are still scratching their heads over the destination and buyers of the contraband.

The dead are considered sacred in Madagascar, which inhabitants call the “land of the ancestors” (“tanindrazana”). Locals build richly decorated tombs with stone or concrete, in stark contrast to their wooden houses in life.

But located far from villages, isolated burial sites are easy prey for grave robbers.

The Malagasy honour the deceased a few years after their death by exhuming the corpse for a day during a pricey ceremony to secure their blessing. - AFP