Italian engineers save Afghan Buddhas

Kabul - Italian engineers have completed work to prevent the collapse of the cliff niches which house the remaining fragments of Afghanistan's ancient Bamiyan Buddhas which were destroyed by the Taliban, a United Nations spokesperson said Thursday.

The engineers spent the past 55 days dangling from ropes to pump cement into cracks to stabilise the immense sandstone cliffs which until spring 2001 housed the immense Buddha statues, Manoel de Almeida e Silva told reporters.

"This was undertaken by an Italian engineering firm, Rodio, in an effort to save the Buddhas' niches from collapsing, something that was deemed imminent over the coming winter months," de Almeida e Silva said.

"The work involved engineers abseiling down the rock faces to the Buddhas' niches to help stabilise the crumbling rock.

"They then bored holes and pumped 14 tons of cement in to the gaping fissures which had been left behind when the statues were blown up by the Taliban in early 2001," he said.

"There are still small cracks to be filled at a later stage but the immediate danger of the niches collapsing over the winter has been removed."

Members of the ousted Taliban regime blew up the statues amid international outrage in spring 2001 before they were ousted by US-led forces later that year. Measuring 53 and 38 metres high, the immense statues carved into the cliffs had dominated the Bamiyan valley for 1 500 years.

The Taliban's action was part of a wider orgy of destruction against statues and other cultural relics which the hardline regime regarded as un-Islamic.

Swiss researchers last month said they wanted to rebuild one of the two ancient Buddhas but Unesco denounced the plan, saying the real priority was to mend the terrible damage inflicted on the cliffs of Bamiyan, 120 kilometres west of Kabul.

Unesco said it was more urgent to preserve the fragments of the originals that were destroyed rather than think of rebuilding them at an estimated cost of 30 million dollars.

The Japanese government has donated $1,5-million for rehabilitation of the Buddhas' site in a project implemented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The emergency work on the cliffs cost $400 000.

The main statue, which was more than 1 500 years old, was smashed into about 4 000 fragments.

From early next year, the remaining fragments of both statues will be extracted from the cliff and assembled on the ground where they can be analysed with the help of a laser scanner.

Archaeologists also risk losing certain fragments to traffickers who hope to sell them on the black market.

Some pieces have already turned up in Geneva, the Swiss media reported.

A team of French archaeologists earlier this year said they had found evidence which could cast light on the whereabouts of the legendary third "reclining Buddha" mentioned by ancient travellers to the region.


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