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Doubt cast over claims of Taliban 'attacks' on schoolgirls in Afghanistan

KABUL -- Alleged poisonings of Afghan schoolgirls by Taliban insurgents regularly make headlines — but there are signs the incidents could be cases of mass hysteria, say specialists in the field.

In a widely reported “attack” last week, more than 120 girls from a school in northern Takhar province were rushed to hospital after scores fainted and others complained of feeling ill.

Local officials accused the Taliban — who banned schooling for girls while in power from 1996 to 2001 — of contaminating the air with an unidentified “toxic powder.”

In two other cases this year alone a “gas attack” and “poisoned water” have been blamed for mass fainting episodes in other schools.

The children are always taken to hospital and usually released shortly afterward, with authorities vowing to submit samples taken from the girls for analysis.

Usually, nothing more is heard. But enquiries by AFP have found that neither the government nor NATO's military in Afghanistan have discovered proof of poisoning.

Instead an international expert said the cases had “all the earmarks” of mass hysteria.

“So far no evidence or any traces of any kind of poison or gas have been found” in government tests, interior ministry spokesman Sayed Edayat Hafiz said.

A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force said that at Kabul's request it had collected samples after 200 students were recently reported ill at a high school in the eastern province of Khost.

“Initial laboratory tests of multiple air, water and material samples were negative for any organic compounds like poisons or other toxic material,” said Lt-Col Jimmie Cummings.

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