KABUL - Ignoring an international outcry, Afghanistan's puritanical Taliban Islamic militia began demolishing statues across the country on Thursday, including two towering ancient stone Buddhas.
Taliban Minister of Information and Culture Qudratullah Jamal told AFP the destruction of scores of pre-Islamic figures, designed to stop the worshipping of "false idols," had begun throughout the country.
He said militiamen started wrecking the almost 2,000-year-old Buddhist masterpieces in the central province of Bamiyan, including the world's tallest standing Buddha measuring 50 meters (165 feet), after sunrise.
"The work started about five hours ago but I do not know how much of it (the two Bamiyan Buddhas) has been destroyed," Jamal said. "It will be destroyed by every means. All the statues are being destroyed."
He said Taliban soldiers were at "work" in the Kabul museum and elsewhere in the provinces of Ghazni, Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar.
An edict announced Monday by the militia's supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar, calling for the destruction of all statues in line with "Islamic" laws, has caused shock around the world.
Afghanistan is home to an array of pre-Islamic historic treasures from its days as a key stop on the ancient Silk Road and a strategic battleground for conquerers dating back to Alexander the Great and the Aryans before him.
The two massive Bamiyan Buddhas, carved into a sandstone cliff near the provincial capital in central Afghanistan, stand 50 meters (165 feet) and 34.5 meters (114 feet) tall and were built around the second century.
Appeals for their preservation have come from the United States, France, Germany, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan, Germany, Russia, India and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Koichiro Matsuura, chief of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said he had convened an emergency meeting of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to try to stop the destruction.
"They are destroying statues that the entire world considers to be masterpieces," Matsuura said.
"And this is being done in the name of an interpretation of the Muslim faith that is not recognized anywhere else in the world."
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But Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel said the edict was irreversible. "Have you ever seen any decision of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) reversed?" Mutawakel asked.
The Taliban, 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 recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and is not represented at the United Nations nor the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
UN special envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell told AFP he discussed the edict with Mutawakel in Kabul Thursday but was told "the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) is not in the habit of rescinding their edicts."
"I told him that the international community is baffled at the moment and it would create international outrage if the edict is carried out," Vendrell said.
Afghans, baffled at first by the decree and now its implementation, quietly and sadly condemned the destruction.
"Destroyed cities can be rehabilitated. But once the statues are gone, they can never be replaced," said a resident of Kabul.
"It is not helping the war-wounded country."
Taliban officials also privately said they were not happy with Omar's decree, which is seen as absolute law in more than 90 percent of the country under the militia's rule.
"It is causing big damage to our history," said a senior official, refusing to be named for fear of retribution from the hardline militia.
"The war had taken everything else. We had only these (monuments) which are now fading."
Another Taliban official added: "Personally I am against a brick of Afghanistan being destroyed. It is very sad."