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Taleban explains decision to destroy statues

The decision to destroy ancient statues of Buddha was not made by the Taleban's reclusive leader but by 400 clerics who debated for months before declaring them idolatrous and "un-Islamic," the Taleban's information minister said Saturday.

Some clerics had hoped the statues would be spared, but the ruling could not be reversed, Information Minister Qadratullah Jamal told the Associated Press.

"People may have had their individual opinions about it but once their decision was made and the ruling was issued, we had no choice _ we had to follow it," Jamal said in an interview in the Afghan capital.

Even the Taleban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has taken the title Amir-ul Momineen, or King of the Muslims, could not deviate from the clerics' decision, Jamal said.

The order resulted in the destruction of two towering statues of Buddha in central Bamiyan province earlier this month as well as thousands of smaller statues in museums throughout the country, provoking international outrage.

Muslims around the world have condemned the Taleban for destroying the statues.

On Saturday, Pierre Lafrance, the special UNESCO envoy sent from Paris to try to save the statues, met with Jamal to plead for the preservation of other historic sites in the country.

Earlier in the day, Jamal said Lafrance would be told the Taleban "did not have any choice" but to follow the clerics' decision on the Buddha statues. But "we are prepared to care for other artifacts. It was only the statues that were un-Islamic."

Protests . . .

SALE OF KOREAN AUTOMAKER: Demonstrators protesting government-backed layoffs threw stones and firebombs at riot police and burned an American flag on Saturday. Some 2,000 students, union members and laid-off workers marched to condemn the government aim of selling bankrupt Daewoo Motor Co. to General Motors.

INTER-AMERICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK: Police in Santiago, Chile, used water cannons to break up a protest Saturday by students and leftists against the annual gathering of the bank. About 150 anti-globalization protesters tried to march to a convention center, but were blocked by police.

Elsewhere . . .

BERING STRAIT CROSSING: Two British explorers left London on Saturday to launch a bid to become the first people to cross the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia by land vehicle. Steve Brooks and Graham Stratford hope to traverse the 56-mile strait _ in winter a mass of shifting ice floes _ in a snowmobile that doubles as a raft.