Taliban seize `idolatrous' Buddha icons

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The Independent Online
FEARS ARE growing for the fate of two giant statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan after the region in which they stand was seized at the weekend by the country's fundamentalist Islamic militia.

The two 200ft-high statues dominate the horizon above the trenches and bunkers being dug in Bamiyan, which the Taliban overran last weekend.

Recognised by archologists as one of the greatest construction works of antiquity, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were hewn from rough sandstone about 1,800 years ago.

At least one Taliban commander has pledged to destroy them, saying such representations were idolatrous and offensive to Islam.

He has been overruled by more moderate Taliban officials, but the murder of nine Iranian diplomats by Taliban troops last month shows the Taliban leaders often have difficulty controlling their more extreme elements.

Until the weekend, Bamiyan was held by the opposition Hezb-i-Wahdat faction. With the veteran commander Ahmed Shah Masood's stronghold in the north- east, it was one of the last areas outside the Taliban's control. With its fall on Sunday the opposition forces are in almost total disarray.

The fate of the statues may be affected by the Taliban need for international recognition. Many realise that the destruction of the Buddhas would play badly on the global stage.

Presently only three nations - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The country's seat at the United Nations is still held by Burnahuddin Rabbani, the ousted president.

Last year the UN, prompted by leaders of Buddhist countries, called on the Taliban to respect the Bamiyan monuments. They were assured by senior officials in Kandahar - the southern Afghan city that is the headquarters of the Taliban - that the Koran obliged them to respect the holy places of other faiths.

A strong faction within the Taliban, however, believes they are now conducting a Jihad (Holy War). "One effect of the recent American missile strikes has been to radicalise the Taliban. They feel that Islam is under threat and that attacks against any target deemed to be non-Islamic is justified," said Kamaal Khan, a Pakistani political analyst.

Iran has deployed 200,000 troops on the western frontier of Afghanistan, ostensibly for military exercises. The Taliban have reinforced their defences, distributed weapons to local villagers, moved about 25,000 troops to the border and deployed 30 mid-range rockets and 16 Stinger missiles.

The recent crisis, brought to a head by the killing of the Iranian diplomats, has its roots in the complex system of alliances. Iran, dominated by Shia Muslim clerics, has supported the Shia Hezb-i-Wahdat faction against the Sunni Muslim Taliban. The leader of the Hezb-i-Wahdat fled Bamiyan on Sunday to Iran.

Iran is demanding that the Taliban apologise for the murder of the diplomats and send their killers to Iran for trial. So far the Taliban have refused. Neither have the Taliban responded to requests for the release of a further 30 Iranians held prisoner in Kandahar.

There have been reports that retreating Hezb-i-Wahdat fighters massacred dozens of Taliban prisoners in Bamiyan.

Taliban sources claim that an Iranian general is training more than 12,000 Afghan refugees in four camps just inside the border.

Never the less, the Taliban believe that the Iranians are merely sabre- rattling. "They know that to attack would unify the whole of Afghanistan against them and risk war in the whole region," said one senior Taliban.

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