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Giant Buddhas are destroyed in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban religious militia has 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, one 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 soaring 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.

The same aid worker said the statues were reduced to rubble at the foot of the mountain where they had stood for centuries, adding that the Taliban's defense minister oversaw the destruction.

"The destruction was professionally done," he said. The larger statue, about 170 feet tall, was blown up Thursday with the use of explosives, and the smaller one, about 120 feet tall, destroyed the following day.

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 were 80 percent destroyed.

Abdul Hai Muttmain, a spokesman for the Taliban's reclusive leader, told The Associated Press 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 order.

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.