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Afghan schoolgirls fall ill, prompting probe

KABUL - Dozens of Afghan schoolgirls have fallen ill in recent days after reporting a strange odor in their classrooms in northern Afghanistan, prompting an investigation into whether they were targeted by militants who oppose education for girls or victims of mass hysteria.

Either way, the reports from three schools within 2 miles of one another in Kunduz province have raised alarm in a city threatened by the Taliban and their militant allies.

The latest cases occurred yesterday, when 13 girls became sick, Kunduz provincial spokesman Mahbobullah Sayedi said. Another 47 complained of dizziness and nausea the day before, and 23 fell ill Wednesday.

All complained of a strange smell in class before they fell ill.

"I came out from the main hall, and I saw lots of other girls scattered everywhere," Anesa, a 9-year-old who was hospitalized briefly yesterday, told The Associated Press. "Then suddenly, I felt that I was losing my balance and falling."

None of the illnesses was serious and the girls were hospitalized for only a short time. The Health Ministry said blood samples were inconclusive and were being sent to Kabul for further testing to determine the cause of the illnesses.

"This is a matter of concern not only for us but for the families," Sayedi said, blaming the sicknesses on "enemies" who oppose education for girls.

In the capital of Kabul, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said any attempt to keep girls out of school is a "terrorist act."

Kunduz had been relatively quiet until a few years ago when Taliban activity began to increase, threatening NATO supply routes south from Central Asia. Late Saturday, NATO and Afghan troops killed one militant and detained several others in Kunduz province. - AP

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