BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (AP) - A year after the Taliban blew up two towering ancient Buddha statues, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai promised Tuesday to rebuild them, calling their destruction ``a national tragedy.''
Funding the project will be no small task for this nation's bankrupt administration. But the interim prime minister said rebuilding the statues was part of reconstructing Afghanistan, a nation devastated by war for over two decades.
``The loss of life is something irreparable. You cannot repair that,'' Karzai said during a five-hour visit to Bamiyan, where the statues are located. ``But we're going to work on this and we hope we can have it rebuilt as soon as possible.''
Karzai said an Afghan sculptor, who returned home this month after fleeing 23 years ago, presented him with a design to reconstruct the sculptures within five years.
Karzai toured the two statues in a convoy with Afghan troops, many of whom also stood guard along dusty roads and hillsides about 85 miles northwest of the capital, Kabul.
``It's very sad,'' Karzai said, peering up at the ruins. ``For Afghanistan, it's a national tragedy.''
It was unclear where the money to rebuild the statues would come from, or when the project might begin.
Karzai said his administration had contacted the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for help. The Paris-based UNESCO is responsible for safeguarding the world's cultural heritage.
The original 175-foot Buddha statue and a smaller 114-foot one were carved 1,500 years ago into a huge cliff overlooking Bamiyan, a town on the ancient Silk Route linking Europe and Central Asia.
Today, the rubble of the sculptures is piled where they once stood. The Buddhas' outlines still are faintly visible in a huge arch set into the rock.
Afghan sculptor Amanulah Haiderzad said the government might rebuild only the larger Buddha and keep the remnants of smaller one as a monument to the Taliban's barbarity.
Karzai's visit also was significant for the Hazaras, an ethnic minority who comprise 10 percent of Afghanistan's population but are a majority in Bamiyan. As followers of Islam's Shiite branch, they also are a religious minority.Three mass graves believed to be filled with the bodies of Hazaras killed by the Taliban were discovered recently in Bamiyan.
Karzai promised his administration would do all it could to protect Afghanistan's minorities, including the Hazaras.
The Hazaras say as many as 15,000 of their people were slaughtered in killings orchestrated by the Taliban. The city changed hands several times during Taliban rule, but thousands of Hazaras eventually were forced to flee, their houses burned to the ground by Taliban soldiers.
A U.N. team traveled to Bamiyan on Sunday to investigate the mass graves and was expected to issue a report this week.
``We are concerned about the families that have lost their relatives in those mass graves,'' said Karzai, who did not visit the graves. ``It is extremely sad and unfortunate.''
In other developments Tuesday:
The United Nations also began sending back refugees who sought shelter from the Taliban on islands in the muddy Pyandzh River on the Tajik-Afghan border. About 800 refugees left makeshift camps there for northern Afghanistan when the program was launched Monday, according to Russian border guards patrolling the volatile frontier.
-A British peacekeeper was accidentally shot in the head Tuesday while patrolling Kabul. The peacekeeper, whose name was not released, was flown out of the country for treatment. His condition was described as serious.
A spokesman for the international security force would not say whether the bullet was fired from the soldier's gun or one belonging to his colleagues.