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World appeals to Taleban to stop destroying statues

Buddha statue
Bamiyan's Buddha images are widely acknowledged as some of the finest examples of early Buddhist art  

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A 'savage act," Arab League says

Taleban defend interpretation of Islam

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Pakistan joined world leaders Saturday in asking Afghanistan's Taleban militia to stop destroying ancient statues considered among the world's most priceless treasures.

In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pakistan said it fully supported a proposal by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art to send a team to Afghanistan to remove the Buddhist sculptures, saying Pakistani officials "share in this indignation." Pakistan also said it had conveyed this message to representatives of the Taleban in Kabul and Islamabad.

The appeal may have fallen on deaf ears. Reports from various sources indicated the destruction had already begun.

The Taleban information minister claimed two-thirds of the ancient statues deemed un-Islamic had already been destroyed. The information could not be independently verified, however, because the Taleban is not allowing reporters into the area.

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Officials in India and Afghan's opposition offered similar reports.

India's Minister of External Affairs said his country believed the heads and feet of the two ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan had already been destroyed.

The two sandstone figures are carved into a mountainside and are among the largest stone statues in the world at approximately 174 feet tall. They are believed to date back to the 3rd century.

Taleban sources said they are using explosives and axes to chip away at these statues.

The Afghan opposition, which has been fighting the Taleban forces for control in Afghanistan, told CNN the Taleban fired rockets at these two statues Friday.

"A few rockets were launched at the statues yesterday and they are RPG7 rocket launchers which they fire from their shoulders," said Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

By Monday -- exactly one week after the Taleban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered all statues destroyed -- the task will be complete, Information Minister Quatradullah Jamal told The Associated Press.

A 'savage act," Arab League says

Saturday's appeal by Pakistan joined similar requests, as well as condemnation, from a growing list of nations, including Islamic countries.

The 22-member Arab League has condemned the Taleban move as a "savage act."

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

"Unfortunately, the Taleban'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 Taleban."

Ancient statues are "just a recording of history and don't have any negative impact on Muslims' beliefs," Egypt's chief Muslim cleric Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel was quoted as saying by the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat.

Officials in India -- the birthplace of Buddhism nearly 2,500 years ago -- called the destruction "an act of medieval barbarism." New Delhi has offered to pay for the relocation and preservation of what may be left of the statues.

"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 beings."

Taleban defend interpretation of Islam

The destruction of statues began after Omar ruled that they were idolatrous and against the tenets of Islam. Others argue that Islam does not ban images, only the worship of them.

Afghanistan riuns
Much of Afghanistan has been destroyed by a civil war  

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

An estimated 6,000 statues were housed in the Kabul Museum. It is believed most have been destroyed, although the Taleban have refused to allow anyone inside the war-ravaged building.

"All ambassadors from Islamic countries, whether from Africa or Asia or from Arab states ... they were all unanimous in saying that this act and this decision is totally contrary to the principles of Islam," said Mounir Bouchenaki, vice director of culture for UNESCO.

A special representative of UNESCO met with the Taleban's ambassador to neighboring Pakistan on Saturday to register the world's outrage.

Pierre Lafrance said the destruction of the statues will worsen the Taleban's already troubled relations with the world community.

But the Taleban's Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the order could not be reversed. "It's a decree by ulema (clerics) and the government can't stop its implementation," Zaeef said.

The United Nations has sent a special envoy to Afghanistan in a last-ditch effort to convince the Taleban to change their minds. Talks are planned for Sunday.

New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra, Islamabad Bureau Chief Hannah Bloch, Correspondent Nic Robertson, Producer Liz Neisloss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



RELATED STORY:
World decries Taleban plan to raze age-old Buddhas
March 2, 2001
Who are the Taliban of Afghanistan?
October 5, 1996

RELATED SITES:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Society for the Preservation of Aghanistan's Cultural Heritage
Taliban Chronology

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