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World begs Taliban not to 'vandalize' history

A Bamiyan Buddha
Pictures may soon be all that's left of the Bamiyan Buddhas  

KABUL, Afghanistan -- One of the world's premier art museums has offered to buy Afghan artifacts in a desperate bid to stop the ruling Taliban from smashing priceless historic statues.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has joined the growing worldwide outcry urging the Taliban not to "vandalize" its rich past. Some images destined for destruction represent the most famous relics of Afghanistan's history.

Among them are two soaring images of the Buddha in Bamiyan, believed to the tallest in the world. Hewn from a solid cliff, they date back to a few centuries after the birth of Jesus Christ.

"Let us come at our own cost and let us remove what we are able to remove," said Phillippe De Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, a premier repository of art and artifacts.

The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has described the campaign as a crisis for world heritage and urged Muslim nations to help halt the destruction.

The Taliban campaign, launched on Thursday in the name of a purist vision of Islam, targeted all statues, including the two unique Buddhas.


The Taliban want to remove any reminders of the centuries before Islam when Afghanistan was a center of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage.

The Taliban also believe that Islam forbids the making of images, such as pictures and paintings of people.

All statues destroyed

"All statues would be destroyed," said Taliban's cultural minister Mullah Qudratullah Jamal, adding that "whatever means of destruction are needed to demolish the statues will be used."

Most statues date from nearly 2,000 years ago. They were largely untouched for more than a millennium after the arrival of Islam, surviving even the onslaughts of Genghis Khan in the 13th century and Tamerlane in the 14th century.

The international alarm began on Monday, when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said all statues could be smashed, including the two famous Buddhas that soar 38 meters (125 feet) and 53 meters (174 feet) above Bamiyan.

The Taliban, a fundamentalist movement that regards all human likenesses of divinity as un-Islamic, rejected a last-minute appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a rethink.

"The abandoned relics are not our pride," the official Bakhtar news agency quoted Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil as saying.

Afghan riuns
The Taliban is seeking to wipe out Afghanistan's Buddhist past  

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news service later quoted Jamal as saying statues had been destroyed at museums in Kabul, the southern city of Ghazni, the western city of Herat and at Farm Hadda near the main eastern town of Jalalabad.

The statue-smashing has scandalized Buddhists, Christians and Muslims around the world who have said it is not only destroying the history of civilization but it is damaging the cause of both Afghanistan and Islam.

The European Union has urged the Taliban leaders to think again, while Paris-based UNESCO has called a crisis meeting for representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Even traditional foes India and Pakistan have found themselves in agreement.

Neighbor India, home in exile for Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, said it would try to stop the destruction which one Taliban official linked to the 1992 razing by Hindu extremists of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in northern India.

Muslim Pakistan, one of the Taliban's few foreign supporters, urged the group to preserve the "world's historical, cultural and religious heritage."

Nepal, birthplace of Buddha, on Friday joined the outcry.

Russia denounced the move as vandalism while an Egyptian Muslim intellectual said the edict was contrary to Islam because it respects other cultures "even if they include rituals that are against Islamic law."

Tainted history

Afghanistan has suffered destruction at the hands of many conquerors in the past. Most recently it suffered a Soviet invasion in 1979, an anti-communist insurgency backed by the West in the 1980s and a civil war that began in the 1990s and still continues today.

A two-year drought has also added to the country's woes, with more than a million people facing starvation or death as refugees in the cold.

The Taliban have steadily conquered most of Afghanistan in recent years, and now control its cities and highways.

Heavily criticised for their restrictions on women and for its public executions, the Taliban are recognised by only three states: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Organization of Islamic conferences

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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