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Taliban carries out pledge to demolish non-Islamic sites

A statement from the Taliban leader Saturday said the destruction at Bamiyan had been completed.

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To Afghanistan's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the destruction of a few thousand Buddhist statues is just a way of following Islam's stern injunction against idolatry.

"All we are breaking are stones," he told reporters from his headquarters in Kandahar, adding, "my job is the implementation of Islamic order."

But to Western archaeologists, Buddhist scholars, diplomats, and other Muslim nations, the announced destruction Saturday of most of the giant Buddhist statues in the Afghan town of Bamiyan is a big deal indeed.

The Taliban has not only reportedly destroyed two 1,500-year-old statues that are a rare example of the fusion of Western and Asian styles. They have shattered any international goodwill the reclusive Islamic regime has left.

"The absolutely stupid decision to destroy the statues is only a symptom of a very, very general malaise," Gabriele De Ceglie, the Italian ambassador to Pakistan, told Reuters news agency. Mr. De Ceglie is a member of a committee of diplomats trying to save Afghanistan's cultural heritage. "It is a country where nothing is going the way it should go."

The statues' destruction comes at a crucial time for the five-year-old Taliban regime. Unable to finish off a five-year struggle with northern rebels or to prevent the migration of nearly a million Afghans seeking food relief after a two-year famine, the Taliban regime has become desperate to receive international recognition as Afghanistan's true government.

Only three nations - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan - recognize the Taliban. But none has voiced support for destroying Buddhist statues. And while food relief pours into the camps of their foes in the north, the Taliban's needs have been pointedly ignored. Last November, the world community deepened the humiliation by slapping economic sanctions against the Taliban for its alleged support of terrorist Osama bin Laden, and for its poor human rights record.

The Taliban garnered some goodwill recently by announcing a ban on growing opium poppies - a major source of revenue for the government.

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