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Few thought they would do it until they did, firing fusillade after fusillade into two giant statues of the Buddha that had weathered 1,500 turbulent years of conquest and chaos, but could not withstand the Taliban's tanks. As shells and anti-aircraft rounds thudded into the sandstone giants, Afghans who eked out their lives in the shadow of the statues were aghast.

Now, almost 10 years to the month after Taliban fundamentalists blew the Bamiyan Buddhas apart, Afghanistan's archaeological treasures face a new threat: capitalism. Just south of Kabul, French and Afghan archaeologists have unearthed a 5th-century Buddhist monastery at a 4,000 hectare site called Mes Aynak — and are racing against time to excavate more ruins before Chinese miners obliterate them in their quest for natural resources.

In 2007, China Metallurgical Group, a Beijing-based mining group, signed a $3bn deal with the Afghan government —the biggest foreign investment in the country to date — to exploit vast copper deposits less than 1,000m from the then yet-to-be-discovered monastery. In its day, the building would have stood 15m (50ft) high, and measured 80m by 40m .Now it sits half-concealed by the mound it rises from beside the main road to Kabul; a warren of newly excavated halls and passages with giant feet, hands and faces emerging from earth.

Following a recent visit to Mes Aynak (it means "little copper well"), archaeologist Joanie Meharry described the treasures emerging from the dig. "Among the ruins were found a stupa more than 9m tall, frescoes with details in black and red paint, plaster statues adorned with jewelled ornaments, some laced in a fine layer of gold, and shards of pottery," she wrote.

The team of 16 French and Afghan archaeologists conducting the dig at Mes Aynak has 38 months before the Chinese miners move in, although the hope is that Afghanistan's mining and culture ministries will step in to protect some of the settlement's remains. nyt news service


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