Photos document destruction of Afghan Buddhas
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Afghanistan's Taleban has destroyed two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff centuries ago, pictures obtained by CNN show.
United Nations officials confirmed the claims made by the Taleban, which announced last month it would destroy images deemed "offensive to Islam." But no photographs of the demolition were available until Monday.
Museums and governments around the world had hoped to save the two Buddhas, the earliest of which is thought to have been carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in the third century A.D. At 53 meters (175 feet) and 36 meters (120 feet), the statues were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.
Demolition of the two towering images was nearly finished Monday, Taleban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal said.
"The destruction work is not as easy as people would think," he said. "You can't knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain."
A delegation from the 55-nation Organization of Islamic Conference came to the Afghan town of Kandahar, the austere Islamic group's headquarters, on Sunday to urge the Taleban to stop its campaign against the relics. Taleban leaders refused.
"We would repeat to them as we have to other delegations that we are not going to back away from the edict, and that no statues in Afghanistan will be spared," Jamal said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on a tour of south Asian nations, also urged the Taleban to spare the relics. Koichiro Matsuura, the head of the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, said the agency would continue efforts to salvage other Afghan relics targeted for destruction.
"It is abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of the Afghan people, and, indeed, of the whole of humanity," Matsuura said in a written statement Monday.
"Everything possible must be done to stop further destruction. I have asked my special envoy to continue his mission and explore all avenues that may allow for the safeguarding of other treasures of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage," he said.
Anti-Muslim backlash feared
Matsuura urged the international community not to take its anger at the Taleban action out on Muslim sites elsewhere.
"As inexcusable as this action is, I hope that it will not provide fanatics elsewhere with an excuse for acts of destruction targeting Muslim cultural properties," he said.
The Taleban has controlled most of Afghanistan since 1996, though few countries recognize it as the rightful Afghan government. The fundamentalist Muslim sect has imposed a strict Islamic code within its territory, but many disagree with its stern application of Islamic law.
"This could lead to great schisms between Muslims and non-Muslims," said Sheikh Malmoud Ashour, an Islamic scholar at Egypt's Al-Azhar University. "Buddhists and Hindus are now in an uproar against Muslims, and that is something we would like to avoid."
Muslim countries like Egypt, which has preserved its ancient pre-Islamic monuments as a point of pride, condemned the edict from Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar that led to the statues' destruction. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dispatched the mufti of the republic, the country's most senior Islamic authority, to plead with the Taleban to save the statues.
"They should understand that destroying those statues is not going to serve anything," said Zahi Hawas, who oversees the plateau holding the great pyramids outside Cairo. "They are not helping them but are making bad publicity about Islam -- and Islam has nothing to do with what is happening in Afghanistan."
U.N. says 4 million face starvation
The Taleban campaign against Afghanistan's relics comes as it struggles with an ongoing civil war with the remnants of the previous government, which controls less than 10 percent of the country, and a severe drought that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Annan toured a refugee camp Monday near Peshawar, in northern Pakistan, where about 60,000 Afghan refugees have taken shelter. The camp at Jalazazi features health facilities, some schools and basic necessities. Other camps are not as well-established.
Pakistan, the Taleban's closest ally, has seen 170,000 new Afghan refugees enter the country in the last six months alone. It now hosts about 2 million Afghans displaced by two decades of civil war, including 10 years of Soviet occupation.
U.N. officials have launched a new push for food aid for Afghanistan, where the U.N. World Food Program estimates nearly 4 million are on the brink of starvation. But Annan said the Taleban's decision to destroy the Buddhist statues would make it harder to convince donors to give aid to the troubled country.
Annan told the refugees: "The international community has not forgotten you, you do have friends."
"Alas, the problem is still with us, and the situation in your country has not settled for you either to return or remain at home," he said.
CNN Islamabad Bureau Chief Hannah Bloch, Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
U.N. chief tries to save statues
Society for the Preservation of Aghanistan's Cultural Heritage
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