Pro-Taliban militants in Pakistan have used electric drills to chisel off the face of a massive 7th century Buddha sculpture, raising concerns that hundreds of other Gandhara-era relics located nearby could also be at risk.
The picturesque Swat Valley has become infested with Taliban militants in recent weeks as the influence of the radical Islamic movement sweeps rapidly across northwest Pakistan.
The militants have launched a bloody vice campaign that has left 47 dead, decimated the valley's tourism industry and terrorized the local community. Locals tell ABC News authorities have made no effort to stop the spread of "Talibanization" in a normally peaceful region, often described as "Pakistan's Switzerland."
One Pakistani archaeologist described the Jehanabad Buddha as the second most important Gandhara monument after the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, which were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
"For me at least, the Jehanabad Buddha was the most beautiful," said Fidaullah Sehrai, a retired professor of archaeology and a leading expert in ancient Buddhist art.
Buddhism flourished in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 7th century, and the Swat Valley is considered the birthplace of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. In his memories, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang described hundreds of Buddha sculptures, monasteries and stupas in the valley. Only a handful has been excavated so far.
The Jehanabad Buddha watched over a stretch of the ancient Silk Route, said Professor Sehrai, and was believed to offer protection for travelers and traders. It is the second Buddha destroyed by the Taliban in recent months.THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
"This is tragic," he said when he heard of its disfigurement. "This is destroying our history."
Earlier reports in the Pakistani media said the Taliban had only succeeded in destroying a portion of the Jehanabad Buddha, not its entire face.
Taliban militants showed up at the site last month and first tried to blow the carving from its foundations using dynamite, according to a local who has a home nearby but did not want his name used.
When that failed, a group of 200 fighters returned the following night with a generator and electric drills, the villager said. While dozens of militants fanned out in a security perimeter around the base of the Buddha, others scaled the nine-yard-tall sculpture using ladders and ropes and went to work. Local police and security guards were nowhere to be seen, he said.
When an ABC News cameraman visited the site on Oct. 11, the remains of the Buddha's face were crumbled in a pile at the foot of the mountain.
Locals say vandalizing the Buddha is the latest tactic of the militants, who moved into Swat Valley about three months ago. They migrated from the Bajaur district of Pakistan's tribal belt, a semi-autonomous region that buffers the Afghan border, according to people who have come into contact with them.
"They want to enforce Shariah law across all of Swat," said Mehbood Ali, secretary of the Swat Press Club. "They believe statues are against Islam and have vowed to destroy more of them."
Their leader Maulana Fazlullah, a Taliban "shock-jock" who preaches a rigid brand of Islam from his illegal FM radio station, has taken responsibility for defacing the Jehanabad Buddha. Like the fugitive Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, he has banned the media from taking his picture, saying images of the human face are un-Islamic.
Fazlullah has also ordered women not to emerge from their homes without the full-covering burqa and tried to block a public health campaign to vaccinate children against polio, describing the vaccine as a Zionist-American plot to sterilize Muslims.
Fazlullah's henchmen have terrorized the local community, setting off bombs in CD shops, schools for girls and at least one police station. He has taken credit for attacks that have killed 47 people, according to a tally by the Swat Press Club. More than half of them have been civilians.
Terrified authorities have garrisoned the police after dark, leaving the streets of Mingora, the main city of Swat, under control of the Taliban's Vice and Virtue Police who patrol with Kalashnikovs and RPGs.
They have distributed "night letters" to the owners of CD and video shops, warning them to shut down, told barbers they may no longer shave men's beards and banned drinking Western Cola drinks, like Pepsi and Miranda.
"Help us eradicate immorality and things against our religion or else..." read one recent threat obtained by ABC News. "We have the solution, al jihad al jihad al jihad!"
Taliban influence has spread rapidly across Pakistan's volatile tribal area since late 2005, but its appearance in the normally peaceful Swat Valley has many Pakistanis worried. Swat is located in the so-called "settled areas," where Pakistani authorities should have complete control.
In recent months, President Pervez Musharraf has been embroiled in a political crisis which analysts and Western officials say has caused him to lose focus on pressing security issues. Pro-Taliban militants have stepped into the void and used it as an opportunity to spread their influence.
"I am as concerned about Pakistan's stability as I have ever been," said a Western military official.
Many archaeologists also worry that the militants will attack other unguarded ancient relics in the Swat Valley. They have called on authorities to evacuate dozens of priceless artifacts in the Swat Museum, a site that is virtually unguarded.
"We are worried about the museum," said Bahadur Khan, deputy director of the department of archaeology and museums. "People have always been so friendly in Swat so what's happening is very alarming."
Islam Mujahid reported from Swat. Gretchen Peters reported from Islamabad.