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Taliban Says Smashes Major Afghan Statue Collection
Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL (Reuters March 3) - Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s ruling Taliban movement said on Saturday it had demolished major collections of the country's historic statues and was demolishing the two famous giant Buddhas at the central town of Bamiyan piece by piece.

Despite international anger, Taliban Information and Culture Minister Qudratullah Jamal said several dozen wooden and clay ''idols'' had been demolished at historic sites in Herat, Ghazni, Kabul and Nangarhar province since Thursday.

``They were easy to break apart and did not take much time,'' he said. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar called for the destruction of statues saying they are un-Islamic.

Jamal told reporters the Taliban had been busy removing bit by bit the world's two largest Buddhas, hewn into a Bamiyan cliff.

``We have the intention to spare no statues. Work is going on now on the destruction of Bamiyan's statues and don't know how much of it is done so far,'' he added.

Taliban sources said on Friday mortars and cannon were being used to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas and a Pakistan-based Afghan news service said explosives were being assembled to complete the job.

``They are using any weapon they have got at the Buddhas,'' a Taliban official in Kabul, who asked not to be identified, said on Friday.

``Explosives, such as gunpowder, have also been placed beneath the statues for more effective action.''

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

Humanitarian Crisis

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

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

The Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of war-torn Afghanistan, has raised overseas wrath when the country is facing an increasing humanitarian crisis and is in dire need of aid.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are fleeing homes because of the prolonged conflict and the worst drought in more than three decades. The U.N. has reported in recent weeks that hundreds have died owing to cold and hunger.

A statement by a U.N. Coordinator's office in Islamabad said the Afghan humanitarian situation was ``in a sharp downwards spiral that will continue until at least next summer.''

The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, UNESCO, sent an envoy to Afghanistan on 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.

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

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.''

Purchase Offers

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 on Friday he had warned Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil of world wrath at the destruction in a three-hour meeting in Kabul on Thursday.

Vendrell said he had suggested the statues the Taliban find so offensive 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 he had also relayed the Met's offer to Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, as well.

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.


Updated: 3-3-2001

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