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UNESCO Unable to Convince Taliban to Preserve Statues

ISLAMABAD—UNESCO envoy Pierre Lafrance returned on Monday to Pakistan from Afghanistan, saying he was unable to persuade the ruling Islamic Taliban not to destroy ancient statues in the country.

"No, I was not able to persuade them," he told reporters at Islamabad airport.

The Taliban said last week it intended destroying all statues in Afghanistan under
instructions from the militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, including two giant 1,500 year old standing Buddhas regarded as objects of great cultural importance.

Lafrance said he left a "certain number of ideas" with the Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who promised to convey them to Omar.

"I could not meet the Amirul Momineen (Islamic title of Omar) but insisted on a meeting after Eid al Azha holidays," he said, referring to the Islamic festival of sacrifice, which ends in Afghanistan on Friday.

Because he was facing a religious problem, Lafrance said he tried to make his Taliban interlocuters aware that in the eyes of the world and certain religious communities the statues were what in Islam is called "amanat"—a deposit given to them by history.

"I just pointed out that in many other Islamic countries such heritage is respected and Islamic Ulema (scholars) have ideas how to accommodate and preserve cultural heritage.

"I advised them (the Taliban) to postpone (the destruction) until they had consulted all the prominent Islamic scholars so as to form an important opinion," he said.

Lafrance said Mutawakil, whom he met in Kandahar city on Sunday, was "perfectly aware" of the political and scientific "problems and drawbacks that the decision (to destroy statues) will create," but said it was not a political, but a religious decision.

Meanwhile, the Japanese ambassador in Pakistan, Sadaaka Numata, conveyed to his Taliban counterpart, Abdul Salam Zaeef, that the destruction of Buddha statues could put Japanese economic aid to Afghanistan in jeopardy.

Numata visited Zaeef at his residence to convey the veiled threat, reminding him that 80 percent of Japan's population followed Buddha.