ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 2 (AP) - Taliban troops were at work Friday assembling explosives to fell two ancient statues of Buddha that were deemed, like every other statue in Afghanistan, to be idolatrous, authorities said.

``The Buddhas in Bamiyan were not touched today, but preparations are being made,'' said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan.

Already damaged by tank fire and rocket launchers, the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan province, carved in the 3rd and 5th centuries, will require heavy explosives to fully destroy.

The soaring world heritage statues of Buddha measure 53 meters (175 feet) and 37 meters (120 feet) tall. The taller Buddha is believed to be the world's tallest standing Buddha.

``So far today, they have not been destroyed,'' the Taliban's deputy interior minister, Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, confirmed in Kabul.

The Taliban, who rule about 95 percent of Afghanistan, espouse a harsh brand of Islam that bars women from working, girls from attending school, forces women to wear the burqa, which covers them from head to toe, and requires them to travel with a male relative. It bans most forms of light entertainment and demands that men wear beards and pray at a mosque.

They are fighting an opposition led by ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani and made up several small groups, some of whom espouse the same version of Islam.

Governments around the world protested the Taliban's destruction of Afghanistan's priceless ancient Buddhist statues, with other Muslim states saying it makes Islam look bad and suggesting that the regime turn to solving social problems instead.

India suggested that the Taliban hand the treasures over for it to preserve.

``If the Taliban do not wish to retain their inheritance, India would be happy to arrange for the transfer of all these artifacts to India, where they would be kept safely and preserved for all mankind,'' Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said in Parliament.

In Europe, Swedish Culture Minister Marita Ulvskog said Friday that she was dismayed.

``This threatens to rob the Afghan people of an important part of their rich cultural heritage. These monuments are of great historic value and are also a major concern of the international community,'' she said.

Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency and Ulvskog is chairing the EU Council of Ministers for Cultural and Audiovisual Affairs.

Taliban troops armed with everything from tanks to rocket launchers began destroying all the statues in Afghanistan on Thursday because the works of art were deemed idolatrous by strict Islamic standards.

Anger over the order has been particularly strong in Buddhist areas of Asia because the works targeted for destruction include two huge Buddhas carved into a cliff in Bamiyan province, about 125 kilometers (90 miles) west of the capital, Kabul.

One of the statues is 175 feet (53 meters) tall and dates to the 5th century, the other is 120 feet (36 meters) tall and dates to the 3rd century.

``The Japanese government is deeply concerned,'' said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Japan, where most people consider themselves followers of both Buddhism and the native Shinto religion. ``Those statues are assets to all human beings.''

``If they are ruined, it would be an immeasurable loss,'' he said. ``The Japanese government hopes that Taliban will review such a decision and take appropriate measures.''

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned the decision.

``Unfortunately, the Taliban's destruction of the statues has cast doubt on the comprehensive views offered by Islamic ideology in the world,'' he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. ``Clearly, the world's Muslims pin the blame on the rigid-minded Taliban.''

In Afghanistan's civil war, Iran supports the northern alliance of ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani against the ruling Taliban.

In Egypt, the chief Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, told the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat that keeping the statues is not forbidden by Islam.

In comments published Friday, he said such statues, like Egypt's Pharaonic monuments, bolster the economies of Islamic countries through tourism.

Ancient statues are ``just a recording of history and don't have any negative impact on Muslims' beliefs,'' he was quoted as saying.

In Doha, Qatar, Sheik Yusuf Kardawi, a renowned Islamic scholar, told Al Hayat that the pre-Islamic statues are ``a historic heritage.''

The Taliban should rethink its decision because it has dangerous implications, he said. The order embarrasses Muslim countries that have their own ancient statues and provokes an international outcry, Kardawi said.

Instead, the Taliban should focus on solving Afghanistan's problems and on providing food, health care, education and other services, he said.

The Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage issued an 11th-hour plea to the Taliban on Friday, saying a change of heart could create some international goodwill for the hard-line Islamic rulers, who are under attack for their human rights record and harboring of suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

``If they reverse their decision, it could be seen as a positive sign for future discussions with the Taliban authorities,'' said the society's chairman, Dimitri Loundras, who is Greece's ambassador to Pakistan.

Loundras was one of three members of the society in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Monday when the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued the edict ordering the destruction of all statues.

The decision to destroy Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage may have been a response to the increasing isolation felt by the Taliban since the imposition of U.N. sanctions in January, Loundras said.

``The Taliban authorities are in a difficult position because of the United Nations sanctions,'' he said. ``Maybe they are doing it (as) a reaction to the sanctions, or maybe it is an internal strife between the very extremists and the moderates among the Taliban.''

Whatever the reason, Loundras said it will drive the Taliban into further international isolation.

``We ask them to use common sense. If they keep doing what they are doing, they will put themselves in a very bad corner in the international community,'' he said.

Italy's ambassador to Pakistan and a member of the society said the order to destroy pre-Islamic art is symptomatic of a bigger problem in Afghanistan.

``We are very shocked by what is going on, but this in not the main problem. This is a stupid decision that is symptomatic of a general malaise in the country,'' where Afghans are not able to live in freedom to carve out a ``decent life'' for themselves, Angelo Gabriele de Ceglie said.

``This is a global issue, of how to help them out of this situation,'' he said.

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