KABUL, Afghanistan — Using everything from tanks to rocket launchers, Taliban troops fanned out across the country Thursday to destroy all statues, including two 5th-century statues of Buddha carved into a mountainside.
Despite international outrage, troops and other officials began demolishing images, which they say are contrary to Islam, in the capital of Kabul as well as in Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni and Bamiyan, said Qadradullah Jamal, the Taliban's information minister.
"The destruction work will be done by any means available to them," he said. "All the statues all over the country will be destroyed."
Afghanistan's ancient Buddhas — 175 feet and 120 feet tall — are located in Bamiyan, about 90 miles west of Kabul. The larger Buddha is said to be the world's tallest statue in which Buddha is standing up rather than sitting.
In ordering the statutes destroyed, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said Monday that they were contrary to the tenets of Islam, which the Taliban say forbids images, such as paintings and pictures.
The main museum in Kabul also contains Buddhist statues and artwork, which Jamal said will be demolished.
There are an estimated 6,000 pieces of Buddhist art in the Kabul Museum, said Brigitte Neubacher, spokeswoman for the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage in neighboring Pakistan.
For the past three months her organization has been receiving reports and rumors that Taliban soldiers were destroying pre-Islamic artifacts.
"We raised our concerns with the Taliban authorities," she said.
The international community, from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Afghanistan's closest ally, Pakistan, pleaded for the preservation of the ancient works of art.
"We hope the Afghan government will show the spirit of tolerance enjoined upon by Islam as well as respect for international sentiment in this regard," Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban, said a statement Thursday.
The Russian and German governments joined in the criticism Thursday.
"These intentions cannot be judged otherwise than as an assault on the cultural and historical achievements of not only the Afghan people, but also of world civilization," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil on Wednesday said the Islamic militia was unmoved by international concern.
The Taliban, who rule about 95 percent of Afghanistan, espouse a strict brand of Islamic law.
Omar, in his edict ordering their destruction, said that he wanted to ensure the statues were not worshipped in the future.
There are no Buddhists living in Afghanistan. Other than Muslims there are only Hindus and Sikhs and Muttawakil promised their temples would be protected. There also is one elderly Jewish rabbi, who stays in Kabul to protect a synagogue, which is a small house in the center of the city.
The Taliban have not prevented him from practicing his religion.