UNITED NATIONS -- A special U.N. envoy failed in a last-minute appeal to Afghanistan to save Buddhist sculptures and other art declared to be "un-Islamic," which the country's ruling Taliban says should be completely destroyed by Tuesday.
Over the weekend, Taliban soldiers fired anti-aircraft missiles at two giant Buddha statues carved in the sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan, shattering the figures' heads and legs. Information and Culture Minister Qatradullah Jamal confirmed the damage and added that two-thirds of the country's statues had been smashed.
"The statues are no big issue," he told reporters in the capital city, Kabul. "They are only objects made of mud or stone."
A week ago, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared that Islam forbids the worship of idols, and that all religious statues must be destroyed. His deadline for their elimination was Monday, the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.
A special envoy from the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization flew from Paris to try to persuade the Taliban's leaders to save the Bamiyan Buddhas, carved in the third and fifth century, and standing 175 and 120 feet tall, as well as some of the country's other pre-Islamic treasures.
"I can't say that my mission was successful," said the envoy, Pierre Lafrance, after meeting Sunday with Mullah Omar. "I could not get the suspension of the order."
He confirmed that the Taliban has destroyed small statues in the museums of three towns. The Taliban did not show him any other art works.
Lafrance, a founder of a group focusing on preservation of Afghanistan's heritage, remained cautiously optimistic that some of the art could be preserved.
Other Muslim leaders disagree with the Taliban's interpretation of the Koran, saying it merely forbids the worship of idols, not their existence. Some fear that Afghanistan's actions will tarnish the image of Islam. The Arab League condemned the move last week.
Afghanistan is a cultural crossroads for three great early civilizations -- Greek, Indian and Central Asian -- where monks traveled with merchants to spread their religious beliefs. The Bamiyan statues are valuable not only because they might be the oldest and largest Buddhas that inspired those in China and Japan, but also because of the way they embody the combination of cultures. Their faces are lightly smiling Buddhas, while their clothes resemble Roman-Hellenic tunics.
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