Afghanistan's Taliban government has begun turning to rubble what has stood for centuries, using explosives and rockets to destroy two ancient statues of Buddha.

"The head and legs of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed," said Taliban information minister Quadratullah Jamal on Saturday.

"Our soldiers are working hard to demolish their remaining parts," he said. "They will come down soon. We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them."

Jamal said troops also destroyed several dozen wood and clay "idols" at a number of historic sites.

"They were easy to break apart and did not take much time," Jalam told reporters.

Ignoring international pleas, Afghanistan's Taliban rulers ordered the demolition of the statues in the name of Islam, saying it aims to eliminate idolatry from the country.

Officials said two-thirds of the religious statues in the country have now been destroyed. They said the job will be completed by Monday.

International outrage

The director-general of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, issued a statement Saturday saying, "Words fail me to describe adequately my feelings of consternation and powerlessness as I see the reports of the irreversible damage that is being done to Afghanistan's exceptional cultural heritage."

World governments are also expressing outrage. A spokesman for Japan's prime minister said the government is deeply concerned about the destruction of the statues, which he called "assets to all human beings."

Last week, Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued a decree to trash all the statues, paintings and pictures in the country.

Afghanistan's Taliban leaders, who rule 95 per cent of the country, live by an extremely strict version of Islamic law.

"The real God is only Allah, and all other false gods should be removed," Omar said in a statement.

The Taliban said its soldiers began shelling the Buddha statues on Friday, while international observers and media were kept out of the area.

The two ancient Buddhas are 36 and 52 metres tall. They are carved into the side of a mountain and located west of the Afghan capital city of Kabul.

The larger of the two statues is believed to be the tallest statue of the Buddha in the world.

'Medieval barbarism'

On Friday, India asked Afghanistan to hand over the statues, calling their destruction a "regression into medieval barbarism."

"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," India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said in Parliament Friday.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has written to the leaders of 14 nations.

"Prime Minster Vajpayee urged that the collective voice of humanity be raised against this outrage, and that the Taliban be made to see reason," a statement said.

Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar are some of the countries that have added their names to India's protest. All these countries have large Buddhist populations.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) appealed to the Taliban earlier this week, as did Russia and Germany.

On Saturday, a special representative of UNESCO met with the Taliban's ambassador to neighboring Pakistan to register the world's outrage.

But the Taliban's Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the order could not be reversed.

"It's a decree by ulema [clerics] and the government can't stop its implementation," Zaeef said.