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Afghans close road to save minarets

Kabul, December 8, 2007 (Reuters): Afghanistan has closed a road that threatened the foundation of a group of mediaeval minarets which Kabul wants to see listed among the World's Cultural Heritage sites.

The minarets, standing at more than 100 feet, are all that remain of what was once a brilliantly decorated complex for Islamic learning and devotion along the Silk Road on the outskirts of the western city of Herat.

Just over a century ago, more than a dozen minarets stood in Herat, part of a madrasa-mosque complex built in the 15th century.

Most of the camel-colored, mud-brick towers, which were once sheathed in sparkling blue, green, white and black mosaic tiles, have toppled during decades of war and neglect.

Experts had hoped the end of Taliban rule in 2001 and the advent of a new government would save the remaining towers.

However, the city's new-found wealth in the post-Taliban era had served only to heighten concerns about the towers' stability.

Heavy trucks and cars rumble along a road that runs through the middle of the remaining minarets, shaking the ground and threatening their foundations.

Following repeated concerns from the U.N. cultural and educational agency, (UNESCO), authorities in October banned heavy trucks from using the road.

On Friday, it was completely shut down for all traffic, the information ministry said in a statement published on Saturday.

"The information ministry praises this and hopes such moves could stop the destruction of cultural heritages across the country," the statement said.

Once a bastion of culture and literature, Herat has prospered compared to other parts of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, due largely to trade links with Turkmenistan and Iran.

New buildings of glass and concrete are sprouting up, overlooking the old city and challenging the minarets' command of the skyline for the first time in six centuries.

The old city of Herat is already on the tentative list for inclusion on UNESCO's register of World Heritage sites.