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Afghan Schoolgirls Mass Hospitalization Spurs Poison Investigation

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CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — Doctors were investigating whether dozens of students were poisoned at a high school in northern Afghanistan on Monday after 61 girls went to the hospital complaining of sudden illness, officials said.

Dr. Khalil Farangi said the 61 students and one teacher from Hora Jalaly high school in Parwan province northwest of Kabul complained of symptoms like irritability, weeping and confusion. Several girls also passed out.

The mass hospitalization comes about two weeks after a similar incident in Parwan, where dozens of girls were hospitalized after being sickened by what Afghan 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 Monday's incident was the result of an attack, militants in the south have previously assaulted schoolgirls by spraying acid in their faces and burned down schools as a protest against the government. Scores of Afghan schools have been forced to close because of violence.

Officials on Monday sent blood samples to Kabul and to the main U.S. military base in Bagram to test whether some form of poison was to blame, said Farangi, the director of Charikar's hospital.

Provincial Gov. Abdul Basir Salangi said officials said an investigation is under way.

A number of students interviewed at the hospital by The Associated Press complained of a strong sweet smell, which gave them headaches and made some girls wobbly before they passed out.

"There was a very strong smell, like flowers in the hallway. I fell down and woke up in the hospital," said the 18-year-old Zahera, who like many Afghan goes by one name. She lay in a ward full of girls, many of them two to a bed, wearing the typical Afghan school uniform of black robe and white headscarf.

Sadia Akbari, who was shaking and sweating in a hospital bed with her parents holding her hands, said she first smelled something while sitting in religion class and asked a friend if it was her perfume.

"But then we went outside to the yard and the perfume smell was stronger out there," 18-year-old Akbari said.

Akbari said she left the school with rest of the girls and went home, but she kept feeling dizzy and her eyes were stinging. Her father said he saw her pale face and brought her directly to the hospital.

The 10th grader took gasping breathes as she told her story. Her face glistened with sweat, which had also soaked through her headscarf to saturate her pillow. Akbari nodded toward her hands, with fingers awkwardly splayed out and explained that she was having trouble bending them.

Nizamuddin Rahimi, a provincial education official, tried to downplay the incident, suggesting it was a panic attack after the students saw one of their classmates collapse.

As a precaution, and in response to parents' concerns, at least 50 students were sent to the hospital and the rest home, Rahimi said.

Several hours after the incident, about three dozen students remained at the hospital, Farangi said. They were receiving glucose intravenously and oxygen, said Dr. Khalil Rahman, one of the doctors treating the girls.

The high school where the incident happened is attended by both girls and boys. The girls attend class in the morning, at the time when the students became ill.

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