98 taken to hospital after ‘poison gas’ attack on girls school

By Calvin Palmer

Dozens of schoolgirls collapsed with headaches and nausea as they waited in line for a Koran reading at the their school in northeastern Afghanistan today.

Authorities believes this second apparent poisoning in two days raises concerns that the Taliban and other fundamental Islamic groups have found a new weapon to intimidate girls into staying at home rather than attending school.

Students were gathering in the yard of Aftab Bachi school in Muhmud Raqi for a morning reading of the Koran when a strange odor filled the area.

School principal Mossena, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said one girl collapsed and then others. All the students were sent home.

“I saw several students fall down on the ground,” she said from her hospital bed.

Mossena said she did not know what happened next because she collapsed and woke up in the main hospital in Muhmud Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province, which lies just northeast of Kabul.

At least 98 people were admitted, including 84 students, the principal, 11 teachers and two cleaners, said Khalid Enayat, the hospital’s deputy director. Another 30 students are being monitored.

Today’s incident is the third alleged poisoning at a girls school in about two weeks.

Yesterday, 61 schoolgirls and one teacher went to the hospital in neighboring Parwan province with a sudden illness that caused some to pass out.

In late April, dozens of girls were hospitalized in Parwan after being sickened by what officials said were strong fumes or a possible poison gas cloud.

The Kapisa patients complained of similar symptoms to those in the Parwan incidents, including headaches, vomiting and shivering.

Hospital officials said blood samples had been sent to medical authorities in Kabul for testing.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemeri Bashary said officials suspect some sort of gas poisoning in Kapisa, but that police were still investigating.

The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups in Afghanistan oppose education for girls, who were not allowed to attend school under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.

Though it was unclear if the recent incidents were the result of attacks, militants in the south have previously assaulted schoolgirls by spraying acid in their faces and burning down schools to protest the against the government and girls’ education. Scores of Afghan schools have been forced to close because of violence.

But the apparent poisonings have taken place in northeast Afghanistan, which is not as opposed to education for girls as the conservative southern regions.

No group has claimed responsibility for the mass illnesses.

[Based on a report by the Associated Press.]

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