GHAZNI, Afghanistan, March 13 (AP) - At least two weeks before Afghanistan's supreme ruler ordered all statues in the country destroyed, zealous Taliban soldiers wielding pickaxes hacked an ancient Buddhist-Hindu complex here to rubble, scrawling graffiti on the walls, a Taliban guard said.

``We confront the idols of non-Muslims and destroy them,'' read one message etched in a wall in Pashtu, the language of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group.

Arriving packed aboard four pickup trucks, the soldiers spent several days swarming over the complex, built in tiers up the side of a hill from the second to seventh centuries, said Mullah Saeed Jan, a Taliban guard at the site.

An ancient baked clay statue of Buddha, beheaded decades ago, was hacked into small pieces, among the relics destroyed at the complex at Ghazni, 120 miles southwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

``The Buddha was here, but we have smashed it,'' Jan said Tuesday, wrapped in a dirty brown blanket to protect against the cold wind sweeping the arid plains.

Jan said he knew little of the international outrage over the Taliban's destruction of its pre-Islamic heritage, including two towering statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan.

``I don't know what the world thinks, but it is in Shariat (Islamic law), so what can we do?'' he said.

The destruction at the Ghazni complex came at least two weeks before the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued his order to destroy all statues, decreeing them idolatrous and offensive to Islam.

Taliban soldiers using explosives have demolished two towering statues of Buddha hewn from a cliff face in central Bamiyan in the third and fifth centuries. The taller of the two, at 170 feet, was believed to be the world's tallest standing Buddha, while the other measured 120 feet.

The Taliban have refused to allow anyone to go to Bamiyan.

On Tuesday, Jan displayed bits of clay that used to be part of a Buddha statue kept inside a chamber sealed with wooden slats. In another chamber, all that had remained of one ancient statue, the feet, were pounded into rubble and even the altar was demolished.

``I don't know. They have gone completely mad, I think,'' said Nancy Dupree, a historian and Afghan expert, who has chronicled the history, culture and traditions of Afghanistan.

A founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, Dupree said the Ghazni ruins were a rich mix of Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

``This was toward the end of Buddhism in the area and the coming of Hinduism into Afghanistan,'' she explained. Some of the chambers contained Hindu statues, long since lost, destroyed or sold.

Smack in the middle of the ancient trade route between China and central Asia, Afghanistan's history is a rich blend of cultures and religions.

``There's an unbroken cultural history of 50,000 years,'' said Carla Grissmann, who spent several years inventorying the thousands of artifacts, most of Buddhist in origin, at the Kabul Museum.

The Taliban's Foreign Minster Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said Sunday they had all been destroyed.

For Afghans, Ghazni is considered an Islamic cultural mecca because religious leaders are buried there, Jan said.

Some of those leaders shared the same version of Islam that is followed by today's Taliban.

Take Afghanistan's 12th-century ruler, Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi, who rampaged across most of northern India converting Hindus to Islam and smashing Hindu statues.

He is said to have taken Hindu statues and put them at the entrance to a mosque in Ghazni so the Muslim faithful could use them as stepping stones.

Afghanistan still has relatively large Hindu and Sikh populations, although hundreds fled between 1992 and 1996 when warring Islamic factions, who threw out the communists, destroyed much of Kabul.

The Taliban took control in 1996 and have allowed Hindus and Sikhs to practice their religions. A Sikh temple in Karte Parwan neighborhood is a giant marble hall where the soft melodies of Indian music can be heard.

Despite the Taliban's ban on music, they have not interfered with music played by other religions.

``At the moment, we have no difficulties. But no one can guarantee the future,'' said a Hindu resident of Kabul, who identified himself only as Makan.

``We don't want to talk politics,'' said a nervous Andar Singh, a Sikh. ``Everything for the moment is calm and normal.'' An estimated 450 worshippers come daily to a Sikh temple in Kabul, while in Jalalabad, there are 520 Sikh worshippers, Singh said.

Dupree clings to the hope that some of the statues may have been brought to Pakistan to be sold, despite the Taliban's repeated denials that any artifact was sold.

``It is as wrong to sell as it is to have'' the statues, said Mullah Mohammed Hassan, deputy administrator of Kabul.

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