Taliban Rules Out Compromise on Buddha Statues

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban halted shelling two giant Buddhas for the duration of a Muslim holiday, but remain determined to smash all statues in areas they control, witnesses and media reports said on Tuesday.

The Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, quoted by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), ruled out all compromise to save the Buddha statues.

Zaeef said the purist Islamic movement had rejected a proposal from a London-based Afghan engineer to build walls to hide the ancient Buddha figures in the central province of Bamiyan.

"We will destroy all statues, including the Buddhas, and no other proposal is under consideration in this regard," Zaeef said.

A number of countries and foreign organizations have made offers to either buy or save the giant Buddhas, which tower 175 feet and 120 feet and were hewn into sandstone cliffs at least 1,500 years ago.

The Taliban, who control more than 90 percent of the war-torn country and denounce statues as idols, face a world outcry over the decision to destroy all statues in the name of Islam.

Earlier on Tuesday, witnesses said more than half of the Buddhist statues had been damaged by shelling but the Taliban had delayed further destruction until after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), which is expected to last until the weekend.


The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has brushed aside repeated international appeals to spare the statues.

His decree to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, which was a center of Buddhist culture before the arrival of Islam more than 1,200 years ago, has drawn widespread international outrage.

Australia added its voice to the chorus of dismay with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on Tuesday likening the destruction of the Bamiyan figures to cultural vandalism.

"The Bamiyan statues are considered not only Afghanistan's best known archaeological treasures, but are of great importance to the whole of the world," Downer told parliament.

"Our government, along with many others, calls on the Taliban to respect the cultural and spiritual heritage of all religious groups and to stop all acts of destruction."

The head of India's biggest mosque said on Tuesday he was prepared to travel to Afghanistan to try and negotiate with the Taliban to stop the destruction.

But Syed Ahmed Bukhari, head of New Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque, said a condition for his intervention was that India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee denounces the 1992 demolition of a 16th century Indian mosque by Hindu zealots.

On Monday, Hindu hard-liners in India burned a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. German Culture Minister Julian Nida-Ruemelin compared the statue smashing to Nazi book-burning purges and AIP said Japan had warned that aid to the drought and war-ravaged nation could be hit.

The United States also said it had raised its concerns, while Muslim Pakistan -- one of three countries with diplomatic ties with the Taliban -- has also called for a rethink.


The Taliban's Zaeef said on Monday explosions had destroyed one quarter of the two statues, AIP reported.

Also on Monday, the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO's special representative, Pierre LaFrance, after talks with Taliban officials, said smaller Buddhist statues had already been smashed in Ghazni and Herat.

Iran urged the Organization of Islamic Conference, the world's largest Islamic body, to try and stop the Taliban, and Greece offered to buy statues left behind from the days of Alexander the Great's conquests in Asia.

People protested in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born more than 2,600 years ago. Mainly Buddhist Thailand and predominantly Muslim Malaysia also condemned the destruction.

The European Union denounced the plan as "an act of cultural barbarism and religious intolerance."

But a Kashmiri separatist group, based in Pakistan, expressed support for the Taliban stand.

05:42 03-06-01

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