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Taliban demolish Buddha statues

KABUL (March 4, 2001): Most of the ancient Buddhist relics, including the head and legs of two soaring statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan, have been destroyed, despite internal pleas to save the priceless treasures, a Taliban official said on Saturday.

What hasn't been destroyed will be destroyed on Sunday and Monday, the Taliban's Information Minister Quadratullah Jamal said.

"Two-thirds of all the statues in Afghanistan have already been destroyed, the remaining will be destroyed in the next two days."

"The head and legs of Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed yesterday," he said. "Our soldiers are working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon. We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them."

The two Buddhas, 175 and 120 feet tall, are hewn from the side of a mountain in Bamiyan - located roughly 130 km northwest of Kabul.

The tallest statue is thought to be the world's tallest of a Buddha standing rather than sitting.

The Taliban troops used heavy explosives and rockets to destroy the statues carved in the third and fifth centuries, relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. Both the statues were already damaged by artillery fire during Afghanistan's protracted civil war. Jamal did not have details about which statue was targeted first and whether the heads of both statues had been removed or of only one.

On Friday Taliban officials said preparations were under way but that demolition had not begun. Jamal said his information was from Taliban troops in Bamiyan.

The destruction was being carried out in keeping with an order issued Monday by the Taliban's reclusive supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, including the soaring Buddha statues. He said they were idolatrous and offensive to Islam.

The order generated international outrage. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to take the statues and preserve them. The Taliban have not responded to that offer.

Also on Saturday, a special envoy of UNESCO met Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador in neighboring Pakistan, to register the world's outrage with the destruction.

Pierre La France, special representative of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said the destruction of the statues will only worsen the Taliban's already troubled relations with the world community.

But Zaeef said there was no reversing the order. "But it's a decree by ulema (clerics) and the government can't stop its implementation," Zaeef said.

The Taliban Islamic militia, which rules 95 percent of Afghanistan, including Kabul, adheres to a strict brand of Islamic law. Their interpretation has been questioned by Islamic scholars in other Muslim countries and Islamic institutions.

The Taliban have been unmoved by international appeals to save the statues as historical artifacts. Some Islamic countries have called the Taliban order to destroy the historical relics embarrassing to Islam. Even the Taliban's closest ally, Pakistan, joined the international appeal to save the statues. But the Taliban say yhere is no place for statues in an Islamic country.

An estimated 6,000 statues were housed in the Kabul Museum. It's believed most have been destroyed, although the Taliban have refused to allow anyone inside the war-ravaged building. Two armed Taliban guards keep watch outside the building.

Previously Jamal said the Taliban would put the ruins on display.

"Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation and powerlessness as I see the reports of the irreversible damage that is being done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage," Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the UNESCO said on Friday.

"The Japanese government is deeply concerned," said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Japan, where most people consider themselves followers of both Buddhism and the native Shinto religion. "Those statues are assets to all human


In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned the decision.

"Unfortunately, the Taliban's destruction of the statues has cast doubt on the comprehensive views offered by Islamic ideology in the world," he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "Clearly, the world's Muslims pin the blame on the rigid-minded Taliban."

In Afghanistan's civil war, Iran supports the northern alliance of ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani against the ruling Taliban. Rabbani rules in about five percent of the country and some of the groups in his alliance espouse a brand of Islam akin to the Taliban.

In Egypt, the chief Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, told the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat that keeping the statues is not forbidden by Islam.

In comments published Friday, he said such statues, like Egypt's Pharaonic monuments, bolster the economies of Islamic countries through tourism.

Ancient statues are "just a recording of history and don't have any negative impact on Muslims' beliefs," he was quoted as saying.


Updated: 3-3-2001

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