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Afghan Taliban Defy Condemnation, Blast Buddhas
Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL (Reuters March 2) - Defying international condemnation, Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s ruling Taliban turned to artillery and explosives on Friday to destroy two giant rock-hewn Buddhas they decry as un-Islamic.

Mortars and cannon were being used to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, defying protests and diplomatic pressure, sources in Kabul said.

A day after the Taliban announced they had begun destroying all statues in the more than 90 percent of Afghanistan they control, a Pakistan-based Afghan news service said explosives were being assembled to blow up the two monuments.

``They are using any weapon they have got at the Buddhas,'' said a Taliban official in Kabul who asked not to be identified. ''Explosives, such as gunpowder, have also been placed beneath the statues for more effective action.''''

Taliban leader Mullah Mohamad Omar has ruled that all statues in Afghanistan should be destroyed because they are un-Islamic. The Taliban compares keeping statues with idol worship disallowed by Islam.

The two Buddhas, towering 175 feet and 120 feet high in cliff-side niches, are the first known examples of the massive Buddha images that later spread through Asia.

The sandstone statues, carved at a caravan stop on the fabled Silk Road to China, are the best-known products of the fusion of European and Asian art flourishing in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan between the fourth and seventh centuries.

Friend and foe alike have reacted with horror.

Unesco Sends Envoy To Kabul

The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, UNESCO (news - web sites), sent an envoy to Afghanistan Friday to plead directly with the Taliban leadership to halt their destruction of the country's priceless statues.

General Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO's director-general, said he had sent Pierre Lafrance, a former French ambassador to Pakistan, to Kabul for urgent talks.

``Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation as I see the reports of the irreversible damage done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage,'' Matsuura said.

Through some unexplained error, the statues however were never listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites deserving special protection.

India termed the envisaged destruction ``a regression into medieval barbarism'' and offered to look after the artifacts for all mankind.

Muslim Iran, which has tense relations with Kabul, said the monuments were part of the ``country's cultural and national heritage and belong to the history of the region's civilization in which all humanity has a share.''

Neighboring Muslim Pakistan, one of only three countries along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to recognize the Taliban government, and Buddhist Sri Lanka made fresh moves to dissuade the radical Islamic movement from its plan.

Francesc Vendrell, an assistant U.N. secretary-general and chief U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, said he had warned Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil of world wrath at the destruction in a three-hour meeting in Kabul on Thursday.

New York Museum Offers To Buy Statues

Vendrell said he had suggested the statues the Taliban find so offensive -- they have said they could become objects of worship -- be moved outside the country, and had relayed an offer from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to buy the treasures rather than see them smashed.

``I was told that this would be transmitted to the authorities in Kandahar and I very much hope that it is not too late and that we can find a formula to preserve these artifacts and these monuments, which are a heritage of humanity of course, but also a heritage of the Afghans,'' he said.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) said the director of the Met museum had called him about the offer, which he relayed to Vendrell as well as to Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The Association of Art Museum Directors, which represents the directors of 175 major art museums in the United States, Canada and Mexico, said it would ``stand by any effort'' to retrieve the art.

The Taliban has been seeking international recognition as the legal government, replacing an anti-Taliban alliance that it has driven into the northeast corner of Afghanistan but which still holds the Afghan seat at the United Nations (news - web sites).

Pakistan issues its second appeal in two days.

``The government of Pakistan joins all other nations in appealing to the Taliban government to reconsider and rescind the reported decision regarding the statues of Lord Buddha,'' a foreign ministry statement said.

In New York, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Shamshad Ahmed said there were reasons the Taliban was ``so irrational.''

``When people are ostracized, isolated, politically, economically, socially and culturally, can you expect them not to act in a desperate manner?'' he said. Instead the world should engage the Taliban rather than ostracizing it.

Iran's Islamic government said the Taliban rulers were giving Islam a bad name. A foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said in Tehran the Taliban decision was ``yet another proof of the backwardness which dominates this group's thinking and of their ... effort to depict Islam as violent.''

India Contacts Un Security Council

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (news - web sites) has written to 14 nations, including all five permanent U.N. Security Council members, urging them to make the Taliban see reason, an Indian Foreign Ministry statement said.

Sri Lanka said it would consider buying smaller artifacts from the Taliban. ``We can certainly look at the possibility of working with other countries to buy the smaller statues if it's not already too late,'' Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told a news conference in Colombo.

A Moroccan-based Islamic organization Friday urged the Taliban to stop the destruction, saying the statues did no harm to Islam.

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a branch of the 55-member Organization of Islamic Conference, said it had urged Kabul ``to refrain from demolishing the statues and monuments'' in Afghanistan which ``constituted a universal human heritage.''


Updated: 2-3-2001

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