Suspected Taliban gas attack injures Afghan schoolgirls

"Today at around 9:30am (1030 IST) around 55 people, including nine teachers and 46 students at the Totya Girls' High School, following an apparent poisoning incident, were taken to hospital," education ministry spokesman Mohammed Asef Nang said.

"They are in stable condition," he said, adding that some had become dizzy and others lapsed into unconsciousness.The suspected attack is the fifth such incident this year in Kabul and the eleventh nationwide, officials said, though they could not confirm the exact cause.

Blood tests from girls affected in previous incidents had not yielded any conclusive results, they said.Some observers have speculated that they were cases of mass hysteria, though Nang said that today's incident was "an act of cowardice by enemies of women and education," a reference to the Taliban.

"This is not an accident. Similar incidents have happened in girls' schools before. We think there are groups who do not tolerate development and progress -- their aim is to prevent girls from going to school," said Nang.

Fifteen-year-old Ruqia, who was hospitalised after the incident, said: "I smelled something very, very foul as I was sitting in my classroom. I saw my classmates falling down, my vision got blurred and I heard everyone screaming before I became unconscious."

Police said the incident was under investigation.The Taliban banned female education and work during their brutal 1996-2001 rule.Since their overthrow in a US-led invasion, millions of girls have returned to the classroom and many women now work outside the home.

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