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‘All we are breaking are stones’: Afghan militia leader

The leader of the Taleban Islamic militia in Afghanistan on 27 February shrugged off international condemnation of his order to destroy ancient Buddhist statues, saying "all we are breaking are stones." Mulla Muhammad Omar told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that he had issued his order to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, including those from the country's rich pre-Islamic history, in line with "Islamic" beliefs.

"According to Islam, I don't worry about anything. My job is the implementation of Islamic order," he said from the fundamentalist militia's stronghold in southern Kandahar.

"The breaking of statues is an Islamic order and I have given this decision in the light of a fatwa of the ulema (clerics) and the supreme court of Afghanistan. Islamic law is the only law acceptable to me."

The order, announced late Monday on the official Taleban radio, was met with shock from Tokyo to Paris, where UNESCO demanded the Taleban "halt the destruction of (Afghanistan's) cultural heritage."

The Taleban's Radio Shariat said the ministry of information and culture and the religious police would carry out the destruction. Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else," Mulla Omar's decree said.

Afghanistan, a Buddhist centre before Islamic conquerors invaded around 1,400 years ago, is famous for its two massive and ancient Buddha statues in the central province of Bamiyan, dating back to the second century.

They are believed to be among the tallest standing Buddhas in the world. Museums around the country host smaller but equally important Buddhist figures and other priceless statues. In Tokyo, Hokkaido University's professor emeritus of Buddhism Kotatsu Fujita said: "I cannot believe the Taleban will destroy the big Buddhas."

"Even though the statues are in Afghanistan, they are really world heritage sites now. I strongly doubt the Taleban's understandings of cultural heritage." All Japan Buddhist association secretary general Kijo Nishimura said the destruction "must be avoided as much as possible under any circumstances."

"Once you destroy something, you can never get it back. We have an important responsibility to leave these statues to our descendants ... ," he said. Omar said Afghan history was secondary to the history of Islam. "Whoever thinks this is harmful to the history of Afganistan then I tell them they must first see the history if Islam," Omar told the Pakistan-based AIP.

"Some people believe in these statues and pray to them ... If people say these are not our beliefs but only part of the history of Afghanistan, then all we are breaking are stones."

In deeply Buddhist Thailand, Foreign Ministry spokesman Pradap Pibulsonggram said the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas would be a "loss to humanity."

"It is their loss. I hope they could rethink their decision. It's a loss to humanity," Pradap said. "It's the loss of Afghanistan to destroy these (Buddhas). One day when they resolve their problems, they'll want to attract tourism. This would help them."

The decree was issued as a team of western diplomats visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, to check reports that Taleban hardliners had vandalized ancient statues in the national museum.

The Pakistan-based envoys from Greece, Italy and France left Tuesday morning, saying only they were "very sad."

The Taleban, or movement of religious students, seized Kabul in 1996 and have imposed a puritanical mix of Pashtun tribal and Sharia law in a bid to create their idea of a true Muslim state.

Their regime is recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and is not represented at the United Nations nor the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

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