May 29, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Cultural preservation experts from nearly two dozen countries reached no immediate consensus Wednesday on whether the fabled Bamiyan Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban last year should be rebuilt, U.N. officials said.

One official from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization called for the Buddha statuary to remain the way it is - forever defaced, as a historical marker to remind people of the devastation wrought by the hard-line Taliban militia.

The two-day meeting on how to promote and resurrect Afghanistan's cultural heritage after two decades of war, sponsored by UNESCO, wound up Wednesday. It dealt with cultural reconstruction across the country - from minarets to ancient sections of cities to the famed Buddhas, which produced hours of debate.

``We cannot just treat this in one afternoon. It is a complicated question,'' Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's assistant director for culture, told a news conference. He said other options, such as three-dimensional ``virtual reconstruction,'' are being explored.

``This question is, in the end, the responsibility of the Afghan authorities and the Afghan people,'' Bouchenaki said.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai promised last month that the Buddhas would be reconstructed ``as soon as possible.'' The interim administration's minister of information and culture, Said Makhdoom Raheen, did not address the Bamiyan question Wednesday.

The original Buddha statue and a smaller one were chiseled into a cliff more than 1,500 years ago in the central Bamiyan Valley on the ancient Silk Route linking Europe and Central Asia.

The Taliban considered the statues ``idolatrous'' and against the tenets of Islam and blew them up despite international outcry and near-universal condemnation, including from top Muslims.

Ikuo Hirayama, UNESCO's goodwill ambassador for culture, said he believed the damaged Buddhas should not be renovated so visitors can remember acts committed in the name of a brand of Islam that few outside the Taliban endorse.

Saying the money for the Buddhas' reconstruction could be diverted to Afghan refugee relief, Hirayama compared Bamiyan to sites like Auschwitz and Hiroshima, where visitors are forced to contemplate the acts that have taken place.

``The remains in Bamiyan today are testimony to the tragic and deliberate destruction,'' said Hirayama, who was 15 when he survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb dropped by the United States and saw classmates and teachers die.

``Instead of collecting and reassembling the fragments, we should maintain the current situation,'' he said. ``The creation of these Buddhas is an important historical moment. But so is the destruction. Both are part of history now. I think that is the lesson to be learned.''

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