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Buddhas will be destroyed: Taliban minister

KABUL (March 4, 2001): Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel on Sunday said Afghanistan's ancient Bamiyan Buddhas would be destroyed as he prepared for talks with a special envoy from UNESCO.

"The edict will be implemented Inshallah (God willing)," Mutawakel told AFP from the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar shortly before the arrival of UNESCO special envoy Pierre Lafrance.

"We like to see the UNESCO envoy. It is good that we can explain to him that what we are doing is an internal issue and we do not want to confront the world."

The Islamic militia last week began destroying historic statues around the country to prevent idolatry, but Lafrance said on Saturday that there was a "faint glimpse of hope" they could still be saved.

He quoted conflicting reports from Taliban officials about the extent of the destruction so far and the nature of the order from Taliban Supreme Leader Mulla Mohammad Omar which authorised the iconoclasm.

At stake are thousands of historic figures from Afghanistan's pre-Islamic history, notably the two massive Buddha statues in central Bamiyan province which date back more than 1,500 years.

Minister of Information and Culture Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal has said Taliban troops were carrying out the "work" with everything from tank shells to hammers and two thirds of Afghanistan's statues had already been destroyed.

The rest, including the Bamiyan Buddhas, would be finished off early this week, he said.

Lafrance, the former French ambassador to Iran and Pakistan, was sent on Friday from Europe on an emergency mission to save the cultural artifacts which form part of the world's heritage.

He is expected to meet Mutawakel in Kandahar later Sunday.

Using heavy explosives and rockets, the Taliban militia destroyed the heads and legs of two Bamiyan Buddhas, and threatened to demolish all statues in Afghanistan by Monday.

Despite international pleas to save the priceless treasures, Jamal had said on Saturday: "Two-thirds of all statues in Afghanistan have already been destroyed and the remaining will be destroyed in the next two days".

"Our soldiers are working hard. The Bamiyan Buddhas will come down soon. We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them." Carved in the third and fifth centuries, the two statues are relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. Both the statues were 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. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to preserve the statues. 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 neighbouring Pakistan, to register the world's outrage over the destruction.

The Taliban was unmoved by international appeals to save the statues as historical artifacts. Some Islamic countries have termed the Taliban order to destroy the historical relics as embarrassing for Islam. Even Taliban's closest ally, Pakistan, joined the international appeal to save the statues.

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

In Teheran, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said: ``Unfortunately, the Taliban's destruction of statues has cast doubt on the comprehensive views offered by Islamic ideology in the world.''

In Egypt, the chief Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, told the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat that keeping the statues was not forbidden by Islam. In comments published on Friday, he said such statues, like Egypt's Pharaonic monuments, bolstered 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.


Eyewitnesses account: Residents of central Bamiyan, where the two ancient statues of Buddha hewn from a cliff face in the third and fifth centuries are located, said Taliban soldiers began attacking the statues at least three days earlier.

"I could see the Taliban soldiers firing anti-aircraft weapons at the two statues. That was three days ago," said Safdar Ali, a resident who arrived on Sunday in the Afghan capital from Bamiyan, 130 kilometres away.

"The soldiers wouldn't let us get too close so I couldn't see how much was damaged. We just left the area," he said. (Agencies)


Updated: 3-3-2001

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