Afghan Buddhas No More

Smoke from a brush fire rises above Griffith Park 08 May 2007 near the Los Angeles Zoo. Five water-dropping helicopters and 120 firefighters were dispatched to the 4,200-acre park. Authorities said the Griffith Observatory at center was not in danger.
The Taliban religious militia has now completely demolished two giant statues of Buddha hewn from a cliff face in central Afghanistan, international aid workers said Sunday, despite desperate pleas from abroad to spare the third- and fifth-century relics.

The destruction was ordered late last month by the Taliban, hard-line Muslims who rule most of Afghanistan and say statues are idolatrous. Despite the international outcry, the Taliban appeared Sunday to have obliterated both statues, the taller of which was believed to be the world's tallest standing Buddha.

Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan during a meeting Sunday in neighboring Pakistan that there was nothing left of the statues, according to an international aid worker who attended the talks.

At a news conference after the talks, Annan refused to confirm the total destruction of the Buddhas, but said Muttawakil had told him "all the moveable statues have been destroyed," referring to smaller Buddhist monuments.

The destruction of the two giant Buddhas was corroborated by Taliban officials in southern Afghanistan and by an aid worker who said his information came from witnesses in the area.

It has been impossible to independently verify the reports because the Taliban have refused to allow anyone in the Bamiyan Valley area, where the statues stood.

After meeting with Annan, the Taliban foreign minister was asked whether the demolition had been completed. "There might not be so much left," he told reporters, without elaborating.

"This is totally an internal religious edict that has been excessively exaggerated in the outside world," Muttawakil said at a news conference.

On Saturday, the Taliban had said the statues, measuring 170 feet and 120 feet, were 80 percent destroyed.

Abdul Hai Muttmain, a spokesman for the Taliban's reclusive leader, told said that delegations pleading for preservation were too late: The statues were almost gone.

"Everyone is coming now is too late. We have destroyed 80 percent of the statues. There is only a small amount left and we will destroy that soon," Muttmain said.

Upon his arrival in Pakistan on Saturday, Annan said he would convey the world's outrage at the destruction. By Sunday, it appeared to be too late.

Relations between the United Nations and the Taliban have never been good, and they have worsened with fresh sanctions imposed in January to press for the extradition of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. The Taliban have refused to hand him over.

Now, the outcry to save the two giant Buddhas has spread worldwide.

Predominantly Buddhist nations like Japan and Sri Lanka have made pleas. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sent a special envoy from Paris, Pierre Lafrance, to try to get the Taliban to rescind their ordr.

The Taliban's Radio Shariat on Saturday said there would be no change to the order. The statues violate the tenets of Islam as laid out in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, the broadcast said.

Islamic nations also expressed their outrage at the destruction. Egypt sent its chief Muslim cleric Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel to Afghanistan to appeal to the Taliban to change their order.

On Sunday, a Taliban official in Pakistan who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Islamic world had simply waited too long.

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