Japan warns Taliban on aid if statues damaged

ISLAMABAD - Japan has told Afghanistan's ruling Taliban that their decision to destroy ancient Buddhist statues could hamper Japanese aid for their drought-ravaged and war-torn nation, an Afghan news service said on Monday.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said Japan's ambassador to Pakistan, Sadaki Numata, urged the Taliban at a meeting on Saturday with Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's envoy to Islamabad, not to carry out the destruction order.

"Don't break these statues because it is a religious issue in Japan where over 80 percent of people follow the Buddhist religion," AIP quoted Numata as saying.

"Your act might cause difficulties for aid to Afghanistan," he added.

Japan is one of the biggest humanitarian aid donors to Afghanistan, which is suffering from its worst drought in decades and an ongoing civil war.

The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, ordered the destruction of all statues last week, calling them idols contrary to Islam.

On Monday, he rejected widespread international condemnation and defended his order as an honour for Islam and the nation.

It remains unclear whether two towering ancient Buddhas carved out of cliff faces in Bamiyan -- 175 feet (53 metres) and 120 feet (36.5 metres) tall, respectively -- have been destroyed.

AIP said Numata also told the Taliban that Japanese artist Ikuo Hirayama -- whose paintings feature images of rock-hewn Buddhist statues -- was willing to buy the Bamiyan statues.

Zaeef told Numata he would deliver the messages to the leadership of the purist Islamic movement, AIP said.


In Japan, Hirayama, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, advocated what he called "economic diplomacy" to melt the Taliban's recalcitrance.

"It seems as if the UNESCO envoy has failed in his negotiations (with the Taliban)," he said. "Thus it seems now that the only way to try to save these statues is by trying economic diplomacy."

"I believe this is the best and only route one can take at this point."

Hirayama suggested that Japan use the clout of its economic aid to convince the Taliban to preserve the statues.

Kyodo news agency reported Numata as suggesting to the Taliban that the statues be broken into pieces to be repaired and reconstructed outside Afghanistan at Japan's expense.

The Japanese outcry against the Taliban destruction grew.

"Not only is it an act against religion, but we would also lose the creative force of historic and world heritage relics for humanity," said Takao Sato, the chief priest of Kotokuin, the guardian temple of Japan's Great Buddha in Kamakura, 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

More than 500 years ago, the temple's 14-metre (45-foot) Buddha escaped unscathed from a massive tidal wave that levelled the surrounding structure. Now the monks there hope some kind of miracle will preserve the Bamiyan statues.

"Losing the statues would mean even the Afghans will lose part of their history," said 19-year-old Mihiro Sadamura, one of those who signed a petition urging a halt to the destruction.

"These statues (in Bamiyan) are priceless," said housewife Tomiko Ogawa. "I just can't believe that they are thinking of destroying them."

(Additional reporting by Midoriko Morita in Kamakura, Japan)

07:44 03-05-01

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