ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The radical Taliban movement began smashing all statues from Afghanistan's rich cultural past Thursday, turning its back on urgent international appeals to save the ancient artifacts.
In Kabul, Mullah Qudratullah Jamal, the ruling Taliban's information and culture minister, said centers where the campaign had been unleashed included Bamiyan Province -- site of two soaring statues of the Buddha hewn from a solid cliff that are the most famous relics of Afghanistan's history.
"All statues will be destroyed," he told reporters. "Whatever means of destruction are needed to demolish the statues will be used."
"The work began early during the day. All of the statues are to be smashed. This also covers the idols in Bamiyan," he said.
Russia, Germany, India and Pakistan condemned the destruction and appealed to the Taliban to reconsider.
International alarm was first sparked Monday, when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ordered the smashing of all statues, including the two famous Buddhas that soar 125 feet and 174 feet above Bamiyan.
The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO Wednesday appealed directly to the Taliban -- a fundamentalist movement that regards all human likenesses of divinity to be un-Islamic -- to reverse its decision.
"UNESCO considers this to be a crisis," Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO's Asian division in the cultural heritage department, told Reuters.
Muslim Pakistan, one of Taliban's very few foreign supporters, joined the international chorus Thursday.
"Pakistan attaches great importance to and supports the preservation of the world's historical, cultural and religious heritage," the foreign ministry said.
"We appeal to the Afghan government to take measures to fully protect Afghanistan's rich historical monuments, sites and artifacts which are part of the world's cultural heritage."
INDIA VOWS ACTION
India said it would try to stop the destruction.
"The government of India will raise this issue at every international forum including the United Nations. We will make all attempts to stop the demolition of Lord Buddha's statue," parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan told parliament.
"This is not only a statue, but a legacy of humanity. Nobody should demolish it," he said.
Thailand and Sri Lanka -- both largely Buddhist nations -- have made similar appeals.
Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Taliban "to do all in their power to preserve the unique and irreplaceable relics of Afghanistan's rich heritage, both Islamic and pre-Islamic," a spokesman said.
Russia denounced the Taliban step as vandalism.
"This intention (to destroy the statues) can only be classed as an assault on cultural and historical treasures, not only of the Afghan people but of world civilization," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.
"The Taliban's vandalism against material objects of the rich spiritual heritage of the ancient Afghan world shows their clear enmity to common human values," it added.
Germany condemned the Taliban action.
"Germany is appalled by the willful destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan. The damage to culturally unique Buddha statues by the Taliban cannot be justified," the foreign ministry said in a statement issued in Berlin.
Taliban officials insist there will no reversal.
STATUES DECLARED UN-ISLAMIC
The Taliban has steadily conquered most of Afghanistan in recent years, and now controls its cities and highways.
The destruction of artifacts -- also under way in the national museum in Kabul, which housed a prized collection of early Buddhist statues -- has inflicted new damage to the Taliban's already poor ties with most countries.
Heavily criticized for its restrictions on women and for its public executions, the Taliban is recognized by only three states: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Afghanistan has suffered destruction at the hands of many conquerors in the past. Most recently it suffered a Soviet invasion in 1979, an anti-communist insurgency backed by the West in the 1980s and a civil war in the 1990s.
The United Nations estimates that up to 600,000 Afghans have been displaced or have become refugees this year because of conflict and a devastating drought.
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