KABUL, Afghanistan - The Afghan government accused the Taliban Wednesday of poisoning schoolgirls by bribing students and workers to sneak toxic chemicals into drinking water or spread it around school grounds, sickening scores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested, officials said.
Government officials said six schools were affected in northern Takhar province in the past three weeks, and though they did not give a total number of girls who got sick, they said one school alone had 125 cases.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, girls were banned from going to school and women were only allowed to leave their homes with a male relative as an escort. After their 2001 ouster, Taliban insurgents would attack schoolgirls by spraying their faces with acid. However, the group has appeared to tone down its stance against education for girls more recently.
Government officials suggested the alleged plot may also have been aimed at undermining the government's achievements.
President Hamid Karzai called for an investigation and intelligence service spokesman Latifullah Mashal said the intelligence service discovered a conspiracy by militants to try to scare families from sending their children to school.
"They want to create terror and fear among students, especially in the education sector and also in the health sector, which are two of the major achievements of the 10 years of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," said Mashal.
He said 15 people have been arrested in connection with the school poisonings. Those being held include 12 identified Taliban insurgents, a teacher and a school treasurer and his wife, he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied any involvement in the poisonings.
"The poisoning of innocent children is against Islamic law. The mujahedeen are not involved in the poisoning of schoolchildren. It is a crime," Mujahid said in an email.
Government officials had previously said it was unclear what caused the series of outbreaks of illness at girls' schools in the province starting about three weeks ago. In at least one case, doctors in the capital city of Taluqan attributed complaints of illness by 125 students to mass hysteria.
But cases continued to mount and seven alleged school poisonings have now been reported in six schools in the province, said Mustafa Rasouli, a spokesman for the provincial government.
He said the insurgents confessed to bribing teachers, school workers and even students to sneak toxic chemicals onto school grounds, Rasouli said.
In two cases, female students were paid 50,000 Afghanis (almost $1,000) to contaminate water tanks at their schools with a toxic powder, Mashal said.
In other instances, conspirators sprayed a sweet-smelling yellow liquid around the grounds of the school, he said.
Officials did not identify any of the toxic substances allegedly used.