ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ For 2,000 years, the stone statue of Buddha stood undisturbed in its central Afghan valley home.

Now, witnesses say, the towering figure, one of Afghanistan's oldest cultural treasures, has fallen victim to fighting between Taliban government troops and opposition forces.

A shell fired during a battle in September tore a gaping hole into the 105-foot Buddha's stone chin, said Abdul Rahim, a resident who fled from central Bamyan province to seek refuge in northwestern Pakistan.

A Taliban soldier, who refused to give his name, said Tuesday that a government tank shelled the statue on purpose. ``But the Buddha is OK,'' he said.

Other witnesses, who withheld their names fearing retribution by the Taliban, said firing damaged the Buddha's face and groin.

The statue is one of two stone Buddhas looming in the craggy canyons of Bamyan province. The second figure stands even taller, at 165 feet, and is said to be the world's tallest statue of the Buddha.

Residents of the area say the smaller statue, clad in a veil that covers most of its body, depicts the Buddha in female form. They say the taller sculpture, which has no clothes, is a male image.

Western archaeologists make no suggestion of gender when referring to either Buddha. In life, Buddha was the son of a wealthy family who renounced material comforts to live as a wandering ascetic in search of truths about death and human suffering.

``We call her Shah Mama,'' Rahim said of the recently damaged statue. He spoke in the Afghan capital, Kabul, during his journey to Pakistan.

``Already she had no face, no eyes, no lips,'' he added.

Centuries ago, Muslim invaders who converted the region to Islam hacked away the faces of both statues, in the belief that images were sacrilegious. Some strict Muslims, like Taliban followers, still consider statues, photographs and other images to be offensive.

The Taliban have imposed an extreme form of conservative Islam in the 90 percent of Afghanistan they control. They forbid photography, and offenders are publicly beaten.

Rahim said the smaller statue was damaged when Taliban soldiers and their Shiite Muslim opponents fought a protracted battle for control of the area.

The damage occurred despite an order from the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, telling his soldiers to protect the statues.

Two years ago, Taliban commanders threatened to destroy the two Buddhas if they gained control of Bamyan. The threat generated an international outcry from Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike, and the Taliban leadership promised to protect the statues.

``Preservation of history is a Taliban duty,'' Abdur Rahman Huttaqi, a spokesman for the religious army, said at the time.

The anti-Taliban alliance, which controls 10 percent of Afghanistan, is made up mostly of the country's religious minorities.