As many as 74 school girls in Afghanistan’s far north have fallen sick after smelling gas in the air, and are being examined for possible poisoning. Some of them remain in a critical condition in hospital raising fears the school was attacked.
Local officials said the girls became ill after noting a gas smell in the air at their school, Bibi Maryam, in the Taluqan, the capital of the Takhar Province, about 250 kilometers north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The girls were taken to hospital and although most were released after being treated, some are still in a critical condition, Dr. Jamil Frotan, the head of the hospital, told Reuters on Sunday evening.
“We have already sent samples of their blood to the Ministry of Public Health and it will soon become clear what the reason for their illness was,” Frotan said.
Sulaiman Moradi, The Takhar governor’s spokesman, said “enemies of the government and the country” were to blame and said the aim was to stop the girls going to school.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra conservative society who remain opposed to female education. The Taliban are just one section of a highly conservative society sharing such beliefs.
The suspected poisoning comes three days after more than a dozen students fell ill at another girl’s high school in Talugan. The incident also remains unexplained.
Four poisoning attacks in girls’ schools in Takhar between May and June last year, prompted local officials to order the head teachers to stay at school until late, to test the water for contaminates and for staff to search the grounds for suspicious looking objects.
Takhar has been a hotbed of criminal activity and militancy since 2009, with the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan highly active in the province.
Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 females have returned to schools especially in Kabul.
Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since 2001, but fears remain that these gains could be traded away as western forces prepare to leave the country in 2014 and the Afghan government seeks peace talks with the Taliban.