MUHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan - The Taliban and their allies among Islamic fundamentalists were accused by Afghan authorities of launching an apparent poison gas attack Tuesday that caused dozens of schoolgirls to collapse with headaches and nausea at their school in northeastern Afghanistan.
The students were gathering in the yard of Aftab Bachi school in Muhmud Raqi for a morning reading of the Qur'an when a strange odour 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.
"I saw several students fall down on the ground," said Mossena, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
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 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, Mossena, 11 teachers and two cleaners, said Khalid Enayat, the hospital's deputy director. He said they were monitoring about another 30 students to see if they developed symptoms.
The Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists have regularly attacked girls schools in Afghanistan and the third alleged poisoning incident at a girls school in two weeks and the second in as many days has raised concerns that they have now found a new weapon to scare girls into staying at home rather than going to class.
On Monday, 61 schoolgirls and one teacher went to the hospital in neighbouring 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 enemies of Afghanistan are behind this poisoning," said Kapisa education director Abdul Gani Hedayat, using the government's term for the Taliban and other militants.
"I am 100 per cent certain it is poison," he said. "Ninety-eight people suddenly fell sick. This isn't something that happens just normally."
Blood samples had been sent to Kabul for testing, he said.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemeri Bashary was more tentative, saying officials suspect some sort of gas poisoning in Kapisa, but that police were still investigating.
The Kapisa patients complained of similar symptoms to those in the Parwan incidents, including headaches, vomiting and shivering, said Aziz Agha, a doctor treating the girls.
Eighth-grader Sonya Sidiqi said she smelled something like cigarette smoke, "then my head started hurting and I started throwing up."
The 13-year-old said she was feeling better after resting at the hospital but that she was still dizzy and felt as if she might vomit again.
Eleven-year-old Tahira said she planned to go back to school when she felt better, but that now it would fill her with fear. "I'm going to be scared when I go back to school. What if we die?" the fifth-grader said.
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.
Still, the three recent apparent poisonings have taken place in northeast Afghanistan, which is not as opposed to education for girls as Afghanistan's conservative southern regions. No group has claimed responsibility for the mass illnesses.
The sickness could also be a result of a group hysteria. A Parwan education official said they had not found any evidence of an attack in Monday's incident. He said one student had fallen seriously ill before the others and suggested that some of the illnesses could have been psychological. A Parwan health official said they were still awaiting blood test results.
Research has borne out the possibility of a psychological cause. At a Tennessee school in 1998, dozens were hospitalized for dizziness, headaches, nausea and shortness of breath after a teacher noticed a gasoline smell in a classroom, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that there had been no toxic exposure and that the sickness appeared to be psychological, noting that the symptoms were subjective.
But if the illnesses are the result of poison gas, then militants have found a more subtle, less personal way to scare girls away from school than the acid attacks in the south, which sparked an international outcry.
Education Ministry Spokesman Asif Nang said they were helping the schools in Kapisa and Parwan to tighten security.
"This was an attack by the enemies of the Afghan people, enemies of education, enemies of development and enemies of the future of Afghanistan's people," Nang said.