LONDON (AP) _ Britain's Natural History Museum said Friday that it will return the remains of 17 Tasmanians and the skull of an Australian Aborigine to the Australian government by March.

The museum's trustees announced their decision a day after an independent panel presented guidelines for dealing with claims.

The Australian government filed a formal request in November 2005 on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center for the return of the remains, which the center plans to cremate in accordance with local custom, said museum director Michael Dixon.

``We acknowledge our decision may be questioned by community groups or by some scientists,'' Dixon said. ``However, we believe the decision to return the Tasmanian remains, following a short period of data collection, is a commonsense one that balances the requirements of all those with an interest in the remains.''

The museum collection of about 19,500 specimens of human remains, from complete skeletons to a single finger bone, covers a span of 500,000 years, officials said.

The Tasmanian specimens are of particular scientific value because they date back to when Tasmania was an isolated part of the world and its people were genetically unique, said Richard Lane, the museum's science director.

Australian aboriginal groups have appealed to the British and Australian governments for more than 20 years to return ancestral remains. Indigenous groups in North America and New Zealand also have made similar appeals.

Such requests were refused until last year when the government amended the Human Tissue Act to allow British museums to return remains ``which are reasonably believed to be under 1,000 years in age.''

___

On the Net:

http://www.nhm.ac.uk