Taleban defend statue destruction
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The leader of Afghanistan's Taleban militia has dismissed international criticism of his order to destroy dozens of historic statues saying Afghans should be proud of the action.
In a message broadcast by the official Voice of Shariat radio Supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar defended his order saying it was an honor for Islam and the Afghan nation.
Omar's order sparked international outcry after the Taleban announced it was planning to destroy two 1,500 year old standing Buddha statues carved into the cliff face above the central town of Bamiyan.
It is unclear whether or not the statues, considered by many to be unique examples of early Buddhist art, have yet been damaged or destroyed as a result of the order.
Reporters are barred from visiting the area.
However, reports from other parts of Afghanistan say dozens of other smaller statues have been destroyed.
In his message broadcast Monday, the Taleban leader called on "Afghans and the world's Muslims to use their sound wisdom" in response to international criticism of his order.
"Is it appropriate to be influenced by the propaganda of the infidels?" he said. "I ask the Muslim people of Afghanistan not to be afraid of the infidels' pressure... and do not synchronize with them."
Islamic clerics in Afghanistan have backed Omar's decree, calling on the Taleban not to bow to international pressure.
Buddhist and Islamic nations have condemned the planned destruction of the Bamiyan statues one of which is thought to be the tallest standing statue of the Buddha.
For centuries Afghanistan was a center of Buddhist culture before the arrival of Islam more than 1,200 years ago, but the Taleban seem determined to wipe out all remnants of the country's pre-Islamic past.
United Nations' envoy Pierre Lafrance said Monday he planned to hold a second meeting with Taleban leaders when the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-adha is over.
Lafrance's efforts to persuade the Taleban to rethink their action comes after the extremist Islamic group rejected earlier calls by U.N. special envoy Francesc Vendrell to preserve the Bamiyan statues.
Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil confirmed he had met with Lafrance but added that reversing Omar's decree was unlikely.
The Taleban maintains its action would help create the world's purest Islamic state saying their mission to destroy "false idols" will continue.
"We are not against culture, but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam," said Muttawakil.
Opposition forces led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, which control a tenth of the country, have condemned the Taleban's "anti-national and anti-cultural" actions.
In a statement from his base in the remote province of Faisabad, Rabbani, who continues to hold Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations as Afghanistan's president, said that Islam respects other religions.
"We strongly condemn and oppose the Taleban's anti-national and anti-cultural action," the statement said.
The Taleban's actions have sparked international outcry with governments and religious groups around the world denouncing the statues' destruction.
On Monday Iranian President Mohammad Khatami joined the condemnation calling for Muslim nations to take unified action to halt the Taleban's action.
State television quoted the president as condemning the destruction of cultural and monuments in Afghanistan and criticizing the Taleban's "inhuman and violent behavior".
According to the report Khatami made the comments in a telephone conversation with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani late on Thursday.
Iranian television said that during the conversation he called on the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the world's largest Islamic body, to "take serious action to stop this group".
Iran, which borders onto Afghanistan, has a history of tense relations with the Taleban and refuses to recognize their rule over the country.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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