KUNDUZ, Afghanistan Scores of Afghan schoolgirls were knocked unconscious or made ill over the weekend by suspected poison gas attacks on their schools and authorities are blaming insurgents who oppose educating girls.
Provincial police chief Abdul Razzaq Yaqubi said about 48 girls and several teachers had become ill suddenly and many collapsed after smelling poison gas at a school in the northern city of Kunduz on Saturday.
Humayum Khamosh, a doctor at a Kunduz hospital, said another 13 girls fell ill after an attack at another school on Sunday.
"I was in class when a smell like a flower reached my nose," said Sumaila, 12, one of the girls hospitalized after the attack. "I saw my classmates and my teacher collapse and when I opened my eyes I was in hospital."
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer said insurgents intent on spreading fear were to blame for the incidents.
"Whoever prevents children from going to school is an enemy of Afghanistan and its prosperity," he said.
A Taliban spokesman denied the group was responsible, but said other anti-government groups could be to blame.
"We strongly condemn such an act that targeted innocent school girls by poisonous gas," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
HOPE TO RETURN TO SCHOOL
Azizullah Safar, head of the main hospital in Kunduz, said many of the girls were still suffering from pain, dizziness and vomiting. The city has seen a surge in violence over the past year as militants stage a fierce campaign to reclaim a former stronghold.
The Taliban banned all education for girls when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, and schooling for females remains a controversial issue in much of Afghanistan.
Similar attacks have been carried out in other parts of Afghanistan over the past few years, including areas where there is little Taliban presence.
Yaqubi said 20 girls had fallen ill in a suspected poison attack on another Kunduz school last week, although it was not until the weekend attacks that the issue caused national alarm.
In the south and east, where the Taliban control towns and villages, schools for girls remain shut, teachers have been threatened and some girls have been attacked with acid.
Despite the attacks, Sumaila said she hoped to return to school, if her father allows her.
"I am very scared. My parents were very worried. My father told me that I have learnt a lot. I don't know whether they will still let me go to school after this," she said.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Noah Barkin)