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Wednesday, 28 March 2001

Taleban to start "soon" destruction of Shi'a mosques and symbols



By Safa Haeri

PARIS 27 Mar. (IPS) The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, encouraged by Saudi Arabia, is to embark soon on the destruction of all monuments, pilgrimage places, shrines and mosques belonging to Shi'ite faith, according to an informed Afghan intellectual.

"Now that the ruling Taleban have destroyed historic Buddha statues, they would start soon the systematic destruction of all the major shrines and mosques that belongs to the Shi'a, including the "Rowza" shrine in Mazar Sharif, the "Jam Minars" in Heart or the Shah Shamshireh mosque and "Pir Boland" pilgrimage place in Kabul", said Mr. Latif Pedram, a Paris-based professor of oriental studies.

Observing that both the Vahabites and the Taleban Sunni consider the Shi'a as "infidels" and stranger to Islam, Mr. Pedram said the Saudis are giving the Taleban "millions of Dollars" in order to eradicate all symbols of Shi'ism and replace them with Vahabite mosques and shrines.

Vahabisme is the official religion in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest of Arab nations while majority of the Iranians, the Iraqis, The Azeris and the Aranis (republic of Azerbaijan) are Shi'a Muslims.  Shi'as also forms between 20 to 25 per cent of the populations in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey and possesses historic monuments and mosques.

Mr. Pedram said both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are encouraging Taleban to "clean" the country from the signs and symbols of all other religions that are not of Sunni or Vahabi Islams.

The money wealthy Vahabites pour into Ben Laden coffers not only helps strengthening Saudi influence in the region and the gradual replacing of Shi'ism by Vahabism, but also is a way of satisfying their religious duties, said Mr. Pedram, who is also a journalist.

Speaking in an interview with Iran Press Service, Mr. Pedram said the recent visit to the United States of Rahamatollah Hashemi, the 24 years old "adviser" to the Taleban's supreme leader Mollah Mohammad Omar, was both arranged and worked out by the Pakistan diplomacy aimed at "reactivating" Taleban's presence in America.

"The main goal of Rahmatollah is to brief the Americans on Ben Laden issue, to explain them Mollah Omar's stand on the subject and at the same time strike a new understanding with Washington", the Afghan scholar said.

Last week, the Envoy delivered a letter from the Taleban leader for President George W. Bush, calling for better Afghan-US relations and offering new round of negotiations concerning Mr. Osama Ben Laden, a wealthy Saudi anti-American "crusader" accused by Washington of several terrorist operations on American interests, including the twin bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1994.

Mr. Pedram confirmed that thanks to millions, if not billions, he get from other wealthy Arabs to continue his crusade, Mr. Ben Laden has become "almost independent" from the ruling Taleban.

"With the money he has, Ben Laden has raised an army of Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and other Muslims and at the same time pays handsomely some of the most influential orthodox ulemas around Mollah Omar", Mr. Pedram pointed out.

Not only Ben Laden has become an important and influential force in Afghanistan independent of the Taleban establishment, but also even Omar himself can hardly make any decision on him alone, Afghan watchers said.

Mr. Pedram doubted the Americans resolve on the Taleban, pointing that in the absence of any alternative, the Taleban are the best asset the Americans have in curtailing the influence of Russia and Iran in the area.

"In the eventual case the Americans want to apply serious pressures on Iran, the Taleban are there to immediately create trouble for Iran at the borders and even provide bases to Iranians opposed to the regime, like the Baghdad-based Mujahedeen Khalq", Mr. Pedram noted.

Actually Taleban did offer bases to the MKO at the height of military tension that erupted more than a year ago, placing the two nations at the brink of war.

"If Washington was serious in getting rid of the Taleban, it should have started by putting pressure on Pakistan, the Taleban's masters", Mr. Pedram observed, adding: "But the problem facing the Americans is that outside the Ben Laden factor, they need the Taleban to advance their policy in this strategic region of Asia".

He said the "paradox" of the absence of a clear American policy for this region is that Ahmad Shah Mas'ood, the veteran Afghan Commander who continue to resist the Taleban had no other choice but turning to Russia, China, India and Iran, "all US foes" for military support.


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Monday 12 March 2001

Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed Completely

KABUL, March 11 (AFP) - Afghanistan's two colossal Buddhist figures were completely destroyed Sunday, the Taliban militia said, as a delegation of key Islamic clerics arrived in a last-gasp bid to save them.  "Consider them finished," Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen told AFP from the fundamentalist Islamic militia's stronghold in the southern city of Kandahar.

Although he said he did not have exact details, he expected the demolition of the ancient Buddha figures to have been completed after they were razed by up to "90 percent" with dynamite on Saturday.

The extent of the damage is impossible to confirm as the religious militia has blocked independent observers from visiting central Bamiyan province, the scene of heavy fighting recently.

The Taliban have said the huge figures, carved into sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan city more than 1,500 years ago when Afghanistan was a seat of Buddhism, are "false idols" and must be destroyed in line with Islamic laws.

Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a decree two weeks ago to demolish the statues, saying his decision was based on orders of God and the Koran, Islam's holy book.  Amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel held talks in neighbouring Pakistan Sunday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mutawakel has said he would tell Annan the destruction of the statues was "an internal religious issue" and not aimed at "challenging" the world, but details of their discussions have not emerged.

As the Taliban ignored international protests and calls to preserve the statues, clerics from the prestigious Al-Azhar university in Egypt reportedly arrived in Kandahar for talks with Omar and Islamic scholars.

The Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based private news agency, said the Egyptians were trying to convince the Taliban leadership that Islamic law did not require the destruction of statues to stop idolatry.  The delegation includes Egypt's top religious leader, Mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, who told reporters in Cairo on Saturday that "from a religious viewpoint it is clear -- these statues are part of the humanity's heritage and do not affect Islam at all."

Wassel was also travelling with representatives from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, including Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmud and two top Sunni clerics, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi and Mohamed al-Rawi.

Pakistan, the Taliban's closest ally, dispatched Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider to Kandahar on Saturday but he failed to persuade Mullah Omar to withdraw his edict.  
"Mullah Omar stated that ... it was not possible for them to review the decision," the Pakistani foreign ministry said in a statement.  "From the discussions it became apparent that the process of destruction of statues including those at Bamiyan was initiated immediately after the issuance of the edict."

Taliban spokesman Mutmaen dismissed rumours Omar was considering ways of softening his edict.  The Taliban were hit with fresh UN sanctions in January over their refusal to extradite indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden, and the foreign minister said he would raise the matter with Annan during their talks.



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A Buddha of Bamiyan statue stands over 160 feet high at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan, prior to its destruction



Monday 05 March 2001

Iran's CHO Denounces of Ancient Statues in Afghanistan

TEHRAN -- The (Iranian) Cultural Heritage Organization (CHO) in its second statement on Saturday voiced deep sorrow over demolition of ancient statues of Afghanistan by the Taliban militia. 


The CHO urged all countries and international organizations, particularly the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to adopt swift measures to halt the Taliban action. The statement said that in the year 2001, designated by the United Nations as the Year of Dialogue Amongst Civilizations on the proposal of President Mohammad Khatami, destruction of the monuments that are symbols of civilizations and dialogue come as a surprise. It seems that Taliban has not yet been able to win a prestige due to its anti-humane measures, said the statement, adding that to compensate for its failure, the militia has now foolishly taken monuments of Afghanistan as a hostage. Even worse is that the militia is acting in the name of Islam to inflict heavy damages on Islamic community worldwide, especially the Muslim people of Afghanistan. It said that the CHO reiterates that Taliban action is not based on lofty teachings of Islam and is merely aimed to protect the interests of the outfit. Based on latest reports, Taliban has launched operations to remove statues of the age of antiquity in Afghanistan which are not related to Islamic era. "The brutal act might entail unpleasant consequences for Muslim minorities in other countries," warned the statement. 


The CHO said, foolish statements raised by Taliban militia in that connection are against faith, knowledge and insult to Afghan people. It condemned the destruction of cultural works in Afghanistan on the basis of unfounded ideology.

IRNA reported.



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Sunday 04 March 2001

Taliban reject Iranian offer to take Buddhas
ISLAMABAD, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil on Sunday rejected an Iranian offer to take Afghanistan's historic Buddha statues into safe-keeping.

The rejection overshadowed a visit by UNESCO envoy Pierre Lafrance, who left Islamabad for Afghanistan on Sunday on a mission to save the statues from destruction by the Taliban.

A senior official of the Iranian foreign ministry made the offer to Mutawakil by phone on Sunday morning, the Afghan foreign minister told the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) agency.

Mutawakil rejected both Iran's offer to buy the statues from Afghanistan or remove them to Iran for safe-keeping, saying both options were in conflict with Islamic teaching. "We accept it is our duty to protect archaeological heritage," Mutawakil said, "but Islam is against keeping statues. Hence the order to destroy them."

He continued: "The question of removing them would have arisen if we did not have museums. As for buying the statues, Islam teaches that one should not wish on another Muslim something that you would not wish on yourself - and both our countries are Muslim."

While Lafrance was meeting in Islamabad with a diplomatic representative of the regime on Saturday, the Taliban minister in charge of culture vowed that the destruction of the statues would continue.

Lafrance expressed his anger and demanded an immediate stop to the destruction when he talked with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan.

The targets include two unique Buddha relics which are on the UNESCO world heritage list. Zaeef replied that the statues were being eliminated under Islamic injunctions.

Lafrance is set to meet with Mutawakil in Kandahar, the Taliban headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan. Lafrance, formerly France's ambassador to Pakistan and Iran, was commissioned by UNESCO director-general Koichiro Matsuura to talk to the Taliban. But the
Taliban minister in charge of cultural issues, Mullah Qudratullah Jamaal, vowed in the Afghan capital of Kabul that no statue would be spared.

He told reporters that two-thirds of statues and relics had already been destroyed and the rest would be destroyed within two or three days. Dozens of clay and wooden statues had been smashed, he said. "Our people are destroying statues with axes and shovels to make sure
nothing of the statues remains intact."

When asked about the fate of the giant Buddha statues carved out of a mountain face in the 6th century in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, he said: "Let me assure you neither their legs nor heads will be spared."



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Saturday 03 March 2001

Taliban Demolished Head And Legs Of Ancient Buddha Statues  


KABUL (AP) --Taliban soldiers demolished the head and legs of the world-famous ancient statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan, defying international pleas to protect the priceless historical treasures, a Taliban official said Saturday.

"The head and legs of Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed yesterday," the Taliban's Information Minister Quadratullah Jamal told The Associated Press.

"Our soldiers are working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon," he said.

The two Buddhas, 52.5 and 36 meters tall, are hewn from the side of a mountain in Bamiyan located roughly 130 kilometers northwest of the Afghan capital Kabul.  The 52.5-meter statue is thought to be thought to be the world's tallest of a Buddha standing rather than sitting.

The Taliban troops used heavy explosives to destroy the statues carved in the third and fifth centuries, relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. Both the statues were already damaged by artillery fire during Afghanistan's protracted civil war.

Jamal didn't have details about which statue was targeted first and whether the heads of both statues had been removed or only one. On Friday Taliban officials said preparations were under way but that demolition hadn't begun.

Jamal said he had been in contact with troops in Bamiyan and the destruction was being carried out in keeping with the Taliban's reclusive supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who ordered all statues in Afghanistan, including the soaring Buddha statues, destroyed because they offended Islam.

The order generated international outrage. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to take the statues and preserve them. The Taliban haven't responded to that offer.

Acceptance might save the thousands of smaller statues in the Kabul Museum, but won't preserve the giant ones carved into the mountainside.



The Taliban Islamic militia, which rules 95% of Afghanistan, including Kabul, adheres to a strict brand of Islamic law that has been questioned by Islamic scholars in other Muslim countries and Islamic institutions.

The Taliban have been unmoved by international appeals to save the statues as historical artifacts. Some Islamic countries have called the Taliban order to destroy the historical relics embarrassing to Islam. 


Even the Taliban's closest ally, Pakistan, joined the international appeal to save the statues.



"Our Ulema (clerics) have given an edict. It cannot be taken back. There is no place for statues in an Islamic country," Jamal said.  It wasn't immediately known whether the Taliban have destroyed the estimated 6,000 statues in the Kabul Museum. But Jamal said statues were being destroyed all over the country.

In Europe, Paris-based UNESCO sent a special envoy to negotiate with Taliban leaders. The UNESCO office in Pakistan said attempts were being made to set up meetings with Taliban leaders.

"Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation and powerlessness as I see the reports of the irreversible damage that is being done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage," Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization, said Friday.

"The Japanese government is deeply concerned," said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Japan, where most people consider themselves followers of both Buddhism and the native Shinto religion. "Those statues are assets to all human beings."

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned the decision.  "Unfortunately, the Taliban's destruction of the statues has cast doubt on the comprehensive views offered by Islamic ideology in the world," he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). "Clearly, the world's Muslims pin the blame on the rigid-minded Taliban."

In Egypt, the chief Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, told the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat that keeping the statues isn't forbidden by Islam.  In comments published Friday, he said such statues, like Egypt's Pharaonic monuments, bolster the economies of Islamic countries through tourism.  Ancient statues are "just a recording of history and don't have any negative impact on Muslims' beliefs," he was quoted as saying.


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Central Afghanistan thrived in the days of the Silk Road as part of the  Iranian Province of Ariana, until 19th century (separated by British) .  Camel caravans criss-crossed the region as they traded between the Mainland Iran, Roman Empire, China and India. And as they journeyed through the Hindu Kush mountains they came upon Bamiyan - one of the wonders of the ancient world.  This heart of the now-forgotten Kingdom had been glorified by two colossal Buddha statues. They were carved into a cliff in the mountains that tower over the valley of Bamiyan.

One of the statues stands as high as a 10-storey building and has been described as the most remarkable representation of the Buddha anywhere in the world. These vast statues were painted in gold and other colours, and they were decked in dazzling ornaments. All around there was a synthesis of Greek, Persian and Central and South Asian art. There were countless rich frescoes. On one cave wall for example there were images of Buddhas in maroon robes strolling in fields of flowers. In another place milk-white horses drew the Sun God's golden chariot through a dark blue sky.

There were 10 monasteries built into the cliff, there were yellow-robed monks, there were pilgrims, festivals, fluttering penants and silken canopies




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Procession of plunderers erase a cultural history


Archaeologists wonder where Kabul museum's artefacts have wound up, if they still exist, writes Luke Harding in the Afghan capital. There is not much left to see inside Kabul museum these days, even if you manage to get inside the normally locked front door. There is a giant Islamic bowl, a limestone inscription written in Greek, and a rather fetching statue in the lobby of King Kanishka, who ruled Afghanistan in the 2nd century AD.

Kanishka's head and torso were lopped off long ago. But his pantaloons and enormous royal feet have survived, improbably, down the centuries. Almost everything else from the collection has gone: the ivory panels of frolicking half-naked courtesans, the recumbent Buddhas, and the Greek coins. Not only did Afghanistan's civil war claim 1.5 million lives, it also swallowed up the country's history. The question now preoccupying archaeologists, four years after the Taliban swept into Kabul, is where the national museum's artefact are now. 

The answer is a compelling tale of smuggling, intrigue, venality and international art fraud. It reflected Afghanistan's rich history as the part of Hushano-Iranian Empire, and its strategic position on the Silk Road between China through mainland Iran and Rome.  To their credit, the Soviet troops who invaded Kabul in 1979 took nothing away, even repainting some of the exhibition rooms. But in 1992, three years after they left, the museum found itself on the front line, as rival Afghan Mujahideen factions fought for control of the city. 

The museum repeatedly changed hands among different groups, who plundered as they went. By the time the museum staff managed to get access to the building in late 1994, the collection had disappeared. Some of it had been destroyed. But most of it, it later emerged, had been looted in the early days of the fighting. A series of vans had rolled up at night outside the museum's side door. The two-tone Buddhist relief, for example, were lifted off their iron hooks, piled in the back, and hidden under a series of mattresses. They were then driven across the Pakistan border, via the Khyber Pass, to the frontier town of Peshawar, which is the centre of the illegal trade in Afghan antiquities. From there they were sold in Peshawar's many antique bazaars. The buyers included wealthy Japanese collectors, Afghan warlords and Pakistan's Home Minister.

With the arrival of the Taliban, whose practices include the amputation of limbs of thieves in Kabul's football stadium, the looting stopped. The museum staff returned. In between selling potatoes in Kabul's markets to make ends meet, they began to compile a list of the few fragments that had survived.

"It is really very sad," says Omara Khan Masoodi, the deputy director. "But there was nothing we could do. It was unpreventable." The upper storeys took a direct hit from a rocket in May 1993 and the museum's facade was perforated by shellfire. The lion sculpture outside the entrance lost its head. "Not only has our history been destroyed, but our society and culture as well," Masoodi says. The exhibits, it seemed, had gone for good. But two years ago a London antiques dealer based in Bond Street received a mysterious phone call. A Pakistani businessman wanted to know if he was interested in buying some "newly excavated" figures from Afghanistan. The dealer, who does not want to be named, had a look at photos of the objects.

"I recognised them immediately as some of the Begram ivories," he says. The ivories were the museum's star exhibits - a series of exquisite Indian panels nearly 2,000 years old, dug up by French archaeologists in the 1930s from the capital of what was once King Kanishka's flourishing empire. The dealer bought the pieces. Then he donated them to a Paris museum specialising in Asian art, the Guimet. But the best ivories were still missing. As photos of the vanished exhibits began to circulate among museums around the world, attention was shifting away from Peshawar to other cities in Pakistan. In Quetta, close to the Afghan border, rumours began circulating that a cultivated Afghan leader now living in exile, Pir Ahmed Gailani, had accumulated his own trove of Buddhist antiquities. An elderly archaeology professor, allowed to look round his living room, hinted that some of the missing treasures were now in Gailani's hands. The professor refused to elaborate.
Like Peshawar, Quetta is a classic Pakistani smuggling town, controlled by fiercely tribal Pathans (one of whom was arrested last week after trying to sell a 2,600-year-old Persian mummy on the black market). Drugs also travel through Quetta to the Makran, Pakistan's lawless southern coast, from where they are whisked away by boat. The trail also led to the ousted government of Benazir Bhutto, who lost power in 1996 and is now in self-imposed exile in London. Ms Bhutto's minister for the interior, Nasirullah Khan Babar, has admitted buying one of the Begram ivories for $US100,000 ($180,000). He defends the purchase, claiming that the sculpture is merely "in safe keeping" until peace returns to Afghanistan.

Other sources, however, suggest he has many other things hidden in his basement. They also allege he may have been involved in a plot to sell the ivories back to Afghanistan. Over in Tokyo, meanwhile, a wealthy private collector is said to have bought several reliefs belonging to the museum from the Gandharan school, a Greek-influenced Buddhist dynasty. "There are a lot of Japanese buyers. The prices are completely unreasonable. They go up to $US1 million for a Buddhist schist [panel]," says Robert Kluyver of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. Back in Kabul, western scholars have been trying to persuade the Taliban to solve another mystery. In 1989, Afghanistan's president Najibullah had moved 20 tin trunks, possibly containing the museum's celebrated Bactrian treasures, out of the building for safekeeping. Some went into the vaults of the presidential palace. The trunks fared better than he did. When the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, they hanged and castrated Najibullah. But the trunks survived. The Taliban, however, now refuses to open them. No-one is sure whether the 1st-century relics, which include 20,000 gold objects, are still there. More trunks are sitting in the Taliban's ministry of information and culture. "We were told this summer that the seals are intact. But nobody wants the responsibility of opening them," says a foreign expert, who is trying to retrieve the museum's collection.

Part of the problem is the Taliban's hostile attitude towards Afghanistan's non-Islamic heritage mainly Ancient Iran.  As a movement, it does not accept the portrayal of any living form, whether human or animal. Two years ago the Taliban seized from a rival faction the remote Bamiyan valley, home to two colossal Buddha statues carved into a sandstone cliff-face in the 2nd century AD. A Taliban commander then blew up the head of the smaller Buddha with explosives, and fired rockets at the groin and dress of the larger Buddha. The attack damaged frescos that had withstood an assault from Genghis Khan. The commander later returned to dump two burning tyres on the larger Buddha's lip. Hardline elements within the Taliban are equally opposed to Kabul museum showing Buddhist sculptures. In August the museum was symbolically reopened for three days. Afterwards, everything was packed away again. Merely to get inside requires Taliban permission. There are signs, though, that this attitude may be softening. Three months ago Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's secretive leader, issued a decree saying the Bamiyan statues should be protected not destroyed. He also released another edict forbidding illegal archaeological excavation, a practice rife during Afghanistan's chaotic war years when Peshawar antiques dealers would dispatch gangs to dig among the ruins. In the face of continuing diplomatic isolation, the Taliban has recently decided to try to persuade foreign tourists to come back to Afghanistan. "We would like international visitors to see our war-torn country," said Abdul Rahman Hotaki, the Taliban's deputy culture minister, last month. The Taliban realises the tourists will return only if there is something left to see, not least in the national museum. Elsewhere in the country, restoration work is being carried out on Afghanistan's crumbling attractions. Over in Herat, an ancient city of learning and culture close to the Iranian border, efforts are being made to stop the remaining five giant minarets of a medieval mosque from toppling over. The 15th-century Musallah complex was one of the wonders of the age, and was described by Byron as "the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised".

Most of the lapis lazuli tiles have fallen off. Rockets have punched holes in several of the towers. But there are still patches of the dazzling blue of Byron's vision. It is the British, however, who are the true villains here. Fearing a Russian invasion, they demolished most of the old mosque buildings in 1885.


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