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Extremists blamed in suspected poison attacks on Afghan schoolgirls

Students recover in a hospital in Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. At least 98 people were admitted, and 30 more students were being watched for symptoms.

Associated Press

Students recover in a hospital in Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. At least 98 people were admitted, and 30 more students were being watched for symptoms.

MUHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan — Officials accused extremist militants of launching a poison gas attack Tuesday that caused dozens of schoolgirls to collapse with headaches and nausea as they waited in line for a Koran reading at their school in northeastern Afghanistan.

The Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists have regularly attacked girls' schools in Afghanistan, and the second apparent poisoning in two days has raised concerns that they have found a new weapon to scare girls into staying at home rather than going to class.

Students were gathering in the yard of Aftab Bachi school in Muhmud Raqi when a strange odor filled the area. First one girl collapsed, then others, said the school's principal, Mossena, who fought for breath as she described the event from her hospital bed.

Teachers told the rest of the students to go home. Mossena said she did not know what happened next because she collapsed and woke up in a hospital in Muhmud Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province, just northeast of Kabul.

At least 98 people were admitted, including 84 students, Mossena, 11 teachers and two cleaners, said Khalid Enayat, the hospital's deputy director. He said 30 more students were being monitored to see if they developed symptoms.

Tuesday's incident is the third alleged poisoning at a girls' school in about two weeks. On Monday, 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 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 government and girls' education. Scores of Afghan schools have been forced to close because of violence.

Tahira, 11, said she planned to go back to school when she felt better. "I'm going to be scared when I go back to school. What if we die?" the fifth-grader said.

Also on Tuesday

Eleven Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings in a bold, daylong assault in eastern Afghanistan, sparking running gunbattles with U.S. and Afghan forces that killed 20 people and wounded three Americans, officials said.

Troops freed 20 hostages taken by insurgents.

The battle occurred in Khost, a border city that houses a major American base.

Tuesday's assault began around 10 a.m., when a suicide bomber in a burqa attacked the governor's compound in Khost. That was followed by a suicide car bombing, said Wazir Pacha, the spokesman for the provincial police chief.

Khost residents hid from explosions and gunbattles that lasted until 5 p.m. Twenty people were taken hostage. At least 11 insurgents and nine other people — including police and civilians — died, the Defense Ministry said.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that 30 suicide bombers had attacked the government buildings.

After the first explosions Tuesday, U.S. forces attending a nearby meeting responded to the attacks and killed an unknown number of militants, said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

A second U.S. team was sent from the nearby American base, Camp Salerno. But those troops were fired on en route, the U.S. military said.

A U.S. soldier and an Afghan police officer were wounded and taken to Camp Salerno, where they were in stable condition. A number of militants were killed, the military said.

Extremists blamed in suspected poison attacks on Afghan schoolgirls 05/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 11:30pm]
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