KABUL, March 2 (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban were reported on Friday to have shelled world-famous, rock-hewn Buddhas as a U.N. envoy warned them of a devastating reaction if they carried out a plan to destroy all of the country's historic statues.
Taliban sources in Kabul said mortars and cannon were being used to destroy the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, defying world protests at the move.
A day after the radical Islamic movement announced it had begun destroying all statues in the 90 percent of Afghanistan it controls, a Pakistan-based Afghan news service also said the Taliban was assembling explosives 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 gun powder, have also been placed beneath the statues for more effective action."
Francesc Vendrell, assistant secretary-general and head of the U.N. special mission to Afghanistan, said he had told Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil of the world anger over the destruction in a three-hour meeting in Kabul on Thursday.
"I conveyed to him the extremely serious concerns of the secretary-general, of the international community," Vendrell said in an interview with Reuters in Islamabad on returning from further meetings at the Taliban's embassy there.
"I asked him to convey to the leadership that the implementation of the edict would have devastating effects for the image of the Taliban abroad," he said. "And it would play right into the hands of the enemies of the Taliban."
Vendrell said he hoped reports emanating from Taliban officials in Kabul that they had already begun the systematic destruction, especially of two towering Buddhas at Bamiyan listed as world heritage treasures, were unfounded.
"I hope it is not true because if it is true the international reaction is going to be extremely negative," he said. "I think it would be a shocking thing to do."
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.
WORLD ANGER AT TALIBAN
But the edict from Taliban leader leader Mullah Mohamad Omar that all statues in Afghanistan should be destroyed because they are un-Islamic has angered countries around the world and across religions.
Even Muslim Pakistan, the Taliban's main supporter, has appealed for a halt to the destruction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- which do not maintain embassies in Kabul -- are the only other states to recognise the Taliban government.
Vendrell has been seeking, with little success, to bring the two sides in the decade-old civil war to the peace table.
Vendrell said he suggested to Muttawakil ways to save the statues, unaware that Taliban Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qudratullah Jamal was almost at the same time telling reporters in Kabul the destruction had begun.
"He listened very carefully to what I had to say but I got no commitment that the edict would not be implemented," he said.
Vendrell said he was surprised to hear on arrival in Islamabad that Jamal had claimed the Taliban were already destroying what they see as idols that violate their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
He 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.
He relayed an offer from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to purchase 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 artefacts and these monuments, which are a heritage of humanity of course, but also a heritage of the Afghans," he said.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted Taliban sources as saying explosives were being brought from other provinces to Bamiyan.
AIP, which has strong access to Taliban officials, said residents were being cleared from near the ancient statues -- which soar 38 metres (125 feet) and 53 metres (174 feet) -- but it did not know if they would be totally destroyed on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
There was no official comment from the Taliban, who have rejected international appeals -- including from Islamic countries -- to save the country's rich cultural past at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
But Taliban officials had already made clear they would not be swayed from what they consider a duty to carry out the destruction of "idols" ordered by Omar.
Branding the Taliban's plans "regression into mediaeval barbarism," India also offered on Friday to look after the artefacts for all mankind.
"If the Taliban do not wish to retain this inheritance, India would be happy to arrange for the transfer of all these artefacts for all mankind, in the full knowledge and clear understanding that they are, in the first place and above all, treasures of the Afghan people themselves," Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said.
In private, ordinary Afghans, and even some officials, criticised the order on Monday by the reclusive, one-eyed Taliban leader to destroy all statues.
Among the sites targeted by the Taliban in its determination to create what it sees as the world's purest Islamic state are the two Buddhas hewn from a solid cliff and the collection of the national museum in Kabul.
The Taliban, which has banned television and photography of people in areas under their control, ordered all shopkeepers to destroy any statues or pictures in their possession.
Since seizing power in 1996, the Taliban has also barred women from schools and work and going out without wearing the all-enveloping burqa veil and ordered men to grow long beards.
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