West, Islamic Leaders Decry Taliban's Statue Demolition

The worlds of art, religion and politics reacted with shock and horror Friday as Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban regime reportedly began systematically destroying two giant Buddhas hewn out of rock centuries ago.

The demolition of the towering statues in Bamian province, as well as the ruination of every other non-Islamic religious piece of art in the country, was ordered Monday by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader. "These idols have been gods of the infidels," he declared.

Mortars and cannon were being fired on the two monumental statues Friday, the Reuters news service reported. One statue rises 175 feet and dates to the 5th century, and the other is 120 feet tall and dates to the 3rd century. Explosives were reportedly placed around the base of the statues, about 90 miles northwest of the capital, Kabul.

It was unclear how many of the thousands of other, smaller Buddhist statues in Afghanistan have been obliterated since the destruction began Thursday.

Political, religious and cultural leaders--among them officials of some of the world's leading museums as well as Islamic leaders in the U.S. and other countries, including Iran and Pakistan--called on the Taliban to grant a reprieve. But there was a sense of helplessness Friday.

"Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation and powerlessness as I see the reports of the irreversible damage that is being done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage," said Koichiro Maatsura, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In Washington, the Bush administration called for a halt to "this desecration." State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said the United States is "distressed and baffled" by the Taliban's actions.

Meanwhile, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was spearheading a drive to save the priceless art heritage: Its director told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the museum was willing to pay for a team to remove portable statues from Afghanistan, U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said Friday. But he said there has been no response from the Taliban.

In Los Angeles, the reaction was equally one of distress.

"We're devastated and depressed that this would be happening," said Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. "These are works of art that can't be replaced, and once they're gone, they're gone." He said the Getty would be open to joining with the Metropolitan Museum in "discussing what practically can be done."

An art expert at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena said Friday that destroying the Bamian Buddhas would be like destroying the Eiffel Tower.

"They are among the most important Buddhist works of art in the world," said Pratapaditya Pal, who is visiting curator of Indian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a fellow at the Norton Simon.

"I would send in the army, I really would," Pal said. "It is of course very difficult to compare [a statue] with a human life, but don't forget that we [humans] can reproduce. These Buddhas . . . are destroyed forever."

Meanwhile, Islamic leaders in the West disavowed the destructive acts and said they violated Islamic law.

"It's very unfortunate what they're doing," said Muzammil H. Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "It's a very un-Islamic act."

"I know they're going through a lot of famine and hardship and millions [are] suffering. Maybe they're doing it out of frustration or anger. But they're not doing it out of Islamic spirit," Siddiqi said. "Islam doesn't allow this."

Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national organization based in Los Angeles, agreed. He said he only hopes that Americans won't blame all Muslims for the acts of Afghanistan's "despotic regime."

Times staff writers Robin Wright in Washington and Diane Haithman and J. Michael Kennedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.