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Giant Afghan Buddhas destroyed, Taleban says

Bamiyan Buddha
The Taleban are keeping the world guessing over the fate of the statues\  

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Afghanistan's ruling Taleban has destroyed the two giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, the Islamic militia reported Sunday.

During a meeting in Pakistan, Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the statues had been demolished despite international pleas, an aid worker who attended the talks said Sunday.

Aid workers inside Afghanistan said they also have been told the statues were destroyed. If proven accurate, the reports will come as a major blow to the many international and cultural leaders who tried to persuade the Taleban to spare the Buddhas from their campaign to rid Afghanistan of all statues they deem offensive to Islam.

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At a news conference after Sunday's meeting, Muttawakil said the international community should stop "exaggerating" the issue, saying: "Anything that directly contradicts our beliefs we don't want to keep anymore."

Muttawakil dismissed pleas from other Muslim nations to spare the country's pre-Islamic relics, and his meeting with Annan did not appear to change any minds.

The sandstone Buddhas, carved out of the side of a cliff, loom 53 meters (175 feet) and 36 meters (120 feet) above the desert at Bamiyan. The town, located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of the capital Kabul, was a stop on the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia.

The Taleban, who control 90 percent of Afghanistan, have conducted a two-week purge of the country's relics, drawing outrage from scholars worldwide.

"There is no precedent for a country decreeing the physical annihilation of its historical patrimony," Phillippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told CNN. "This is a deliberate disfigurement of the identity of a people."

The U.N. General Assembly had earlier condemned the Taleban's edict.

Muttawakil
Taleban Foreign Minister Muttawakil speaks during a news conferencein Islamabad on Sunday  

"These cultural assets don't just belong to the Taleban or the people who live near them," U.N. emergency relief coordinator Kenzo Oshima told CNN. "They belong to the whole world. They are part of a common cultural heritage."

The Taleban move even drew criticism from Pakistan, one of the fundamentalist regime's few allies.

Since taking power over most of the country in 1996, the Taleban have imposed an austere Islamic code over Afghanistan.

They have been widely criticized for putting severe restrictions on women, conducting public executions and supporting Islamic militants abroad.

The Taleban are under U.N. sanctions aimed at forcing Afghanistan to hand over Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, accused of leading plots to blow up U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Annan's mission

They also are prosecuting an ongoing civil war during a humanitarian crisis. About 600,000 Afghans have been driven from their homes by the conflict and the worst drought in 30 years.

Annan meeting
Annan, left front, talks with Pakistan's Foreign Minister and other officials on Sunday in Islamabad  

Annan was expected to visit Afghan refugees in Pakistan during his visit. About 80,000 Afghans live in wretched conditions beneath tents made of stitched plastic bags in the camp in northwest Pakistan.

"We need to take aid to people in their own towns and villages so they don't have the necessity to flee their homes and become internally displaced, or cross borders and become refugees," Oshima said.

"We need to do this very quickly, in addition to bringing immediate relief to people who have already arrived in camps, because they are also in a very bad situation."

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
U.N. chief tries to save statues
March 10, 2001
Pakistan, Japan step into Buddha row
March 9, 2001
Analysis: Buddhas' fate signifies Taleban divisions
March 2, 2001

RELATED SITES:
Society for the Preservation of Aghanistan's Cultural Heritage
United Nations
Taleban

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