Angry India offers to rescue Afghan statues

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Reuters) - Branding the Taliban's plans to smash relics from Afghanistan's cultural past a "regression into mediaeval barbarism," India 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 to India where they would be kept safely and preserved 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 a statement to parliament, he said Afghanistan's radical rulers appeared bent on committing "a sacrilege to humanity" with their plans to blow up two towering rock-hewn statues of Buddha.

Activists of Prime Minister Ata Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the federal coalition, staged a demonstration in Bombay and burnt an effigy of Taliban leader Mullah Mohamad Omar, who ordered the destruction of the statues.

A resolution adopted by both houses of the Indian parliament said the chambers unanimously condemned the "barbarism and anti-civilisational intent" of Taliban at the start of a new millennium when civilisations were coming together on the basis of shared values and dialogue.

"They have moved tanks and guns to destroy one of the greatest examples of human creativity," said the resolution.

"We hope the world community and especially the United Nations will take note of this and prevail upon the Taliban in Afghanistan to desist from this senseless, destructive act," it said.

Earlier the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted Taliban sources as saying explosives were being assembled to destroy the Bamiyan statues, which date back to a few centuries after the birth of Christ.

The Indian parliament resolution called this "an appalling act of cultural vandalism."

The Taliban have targeted statues in the name of a purist vision of Islam, drawing outrage from around the world.

In New York on Thursday, Philippe de Montbello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the world's premier repositories of art and artefacts, offered to purchase the Afghan statues rather than see them destroyed.

"This regression in mediaeval barbarism is precisely what India, amongst many other countries, has been cautioning the world against for so long, " Singh said.

He said the international community had condemned and rejected the Taliban's ideological orientations.

These orientations, he said, had been responsible for Taliban-controlled territories emerging as "the world's principal centre of international terrorism, illicit drugs and violation of human rights, especially those of women."

Indian lawmakers called for an end to the destruction of artefacts.

"What is going on in Afghanistan is horrible. Vandalism cannot be allowed to go on," said Jaipal Reddy, a leader from the opposition Congress party.