Foreigners Visit Demolished Statues

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (AP) - Taliban soldiers on Monday showed off the yawning chasms where two soaring Buddha statues once stood, allowing foreigners a first glimpse of the sandstone rubble that is all that remains of the ancient wonders.

A 1,500-year-old statue which was taller than the Statue of Liberty was a blasted heap of stone. The other figure, once twice as tall as the faces on Mount Rushmore, was also gone - except for a few stone folds of its robe.

Gazing down from a dusty plateau overlooking the mountain monuments of Bamiyan, the heavily armed soldiers seemed amused by their visitors' interest and starved for company after months of fighting in the remote province.

They said they were only following the orders of the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who last month declared all statues idolatrous and ordered their destruction.

``Step by step, we blew them up,'' soldier Abdul Raouf said matter-of-factly. ``First we blew off the leg of the big one and then we went to the smaller one and blew it up. It took us four days to finish the big statue. He was very strong.''

Spent artillery shells, lined up like sentries, stood at the base of the mountain alcove where the tallest statue once stood 170 feet high - 20 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty without its base. It was believed to be the world's tallest standing Buddha.

Stairs near the site of the other, a 120-foot Buddha, led to dusty rooms, their walls decorated with empty niches where smaller statues once stood. The mountain face was riddled with small caves, ancient homes to Buddhist monks centuries earlier.

Residents of Bamiyan considered the monuments neighbors. They called the taller one ``Solsol,'' meaning year after year. They believed the other one was a woman and called her ``Shahmama,'' or kingmother.

On Monday, the Taliban flew about 20 foreign journalists aboard an aging, Russian-made propeller plane from Kabul, the capital, to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. It was the first flight by the national airline, Ariana, to the wartorn area in 20 years.

Taliban soldiers armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns then took the reporters - the first foreigners known to have visited the area since the destruction - to a plateau overlooking the statues.

There, the journalists saw that holes had been cut into the statues, carved about 500 feet apart, for the placement of explosives. One soldier said it took four days to destroy the larger statue.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, chief of the Foreign Ministry's press department, told reporters the destruction was not intended to offend any religious group.

``This decision was not against anyone. It was totally a domestic matter of Afghanistan,'' said Faiz. ``We are very disappointed that the international community doesn't care about the suffering people but they are shouting about the stone statues of Buddha.''

The scars of war were visible in the town itself. Beside homes ruined by fighting, camouflaged tanks were visible. Anti-aircraft weapons were mounted on the roof of one building.

The Taliban, who impose a strict interpretation of Islam over the 95 percent of Afghanistan they control, force men to wear beards and women to be shrouded head-to-toe.

Taliban soldiers have been waging a battle for Bamiyan against their northern-based opponents. They initially captured the area in 1997; since then, international organizations have been worried about the fate of the Buddhas.

Reports as early as 1998 showed Taliban troops attacked the smaller statue, using mortars to blast its groin, arm and head. Ancient frescoes in the niches above the largest Buddha were also lost.

The U.N.'s special peace envoy, Francesc Vendrell, has said that U.N. sanctions imposed in January to demand the extradition of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan may have emboldened the Taliban.

Even Islamic countries - including the Taliban's closest ally, Pakistan - pleaded for the statues to be spared.

AP-NY-03-26-01 1629EST

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.