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Sunday, 11 March, 2001, 16:50 GMT
Taleban's struggle over statues
Taleban fighters
The Taleban's isolation deepened after UN sanctions
By Susannah Price in Islamabad

Last August, the Taleban authorities allowed the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul to open for three days for visitors.

[Opening the museum] created a backlash in uncompromising circles

UN envoy Pierre LaFrance
The museum used to house a wide-ranging collection including Greek coins, Buddhist sculptures and pottery, but much was looted during fighting in the early 1990s.

The Taleban said they were considering moving remaining artefacts from the museum for safe keeping.

While some hardline commanders called for their destruction, the Taleban information minister said they were only interested in preserving them.

The Taleban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had previously said they could be kept as long as they were not worshipped.

Factional struggle

Some analysts believe it was the opening of the museum that sparked a debate between the Islamic hardliners and moderates about the very existence of such statues.

Buddhas of Bamiyan
The Buddhas may be the victims of factional struggle
Pierre LaFrance, the envoy sent by the United Nations cultural agency Unesco, thinks it could have been a contributing factor.

"This was apparently a positive gesture but it created a backlash in uncompromising circles and one of the consequences was the destruction of some statues," said Pierre LaFrance.

"Following this I sense a consultation was started in order to see who was right or wrong and following this we had the decree."

The Taleban have continued to insist this is a religious ruling and have taken no notice of pleas by other Islamic countries to change it.

The foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, said no statues would be spared and no Islamic cleric could produce any religious argument against the destruction

Sanctions link?

However, Taleban officials have hinted that the imposition of sanctions by the United Nations, which were stepped up in January, may be behind their decision.

Ahmed Wakil Mutawakkil
Taleban Foreign Minister Mutawakkil: No justification for saving relics
The Taleban have said that the sanctions, which include an arms embargo and a ban on the national airline Ariana outside the country, are unfair.

The Taleban representative in Islamabad, Salam Zaeef, said there had been some point in preserving the statues to maintain relations with non-Islamic countries.

But once the ties were cut there was no point in keeping them.

There are also suggestions by some that the move is a way of trying to override the splits that are emerging within the Taleban itself between moderate and hardliners.

The move has also been opposed by many inside Taleban - but there is no public disagreement.

Whatever the reason behind the decree, the Taleban appear determined to press ahead with destroying the country's Buddhist heritage.

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