Sunday, April 25, 2010

Afghan schoolgirls fall ill; poison feared

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 (3 kilometers) of one another in Kunduz province have raised alarm in a city threatened by the Taliban and their militant allies.

The latest cases occurred Sunday, 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 last 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 Sunday, 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 only hospitalized for 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.

Girls were not allowed to attend school when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. The group was ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups have been known to target schoolgirls.

In one of the most chilling attacks, men on motorbikes sprayed acid from squirt guns and water bottles onto 15 schoolgirls and teachers in 2008 as they walked to a girls school in Kandahar, the southern city that is the spiritual birthplace of the militant movement.

Previous cases of sudden illness in schools have left families too frightened to send their daughters to school.

Last year, dozens of girls were hospitalized in Kapisa province, just northeast of Kabul, after many collapsed with headaches and nausea following reports of a strange odor in their schoolyard. The Taliban was blamed, but research into similar mass sickenings elsewhere has suggested that some might be the result of group hysteria.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Sunday, hundreds of people blocked a main road in Logar province, west of Kabul, and burned several trucks to protest what they said were civilian deaths in NATO operations. They gathered hours after NATO said coalition troops killed several insurgents and captured a Taliban sub-commander.

"The man they killed was a schoolteacher and a mullah," said businessman Jan Mohammed. "They killed him inside his house and because of that the people came and burned my gas station, my car and my house."

He complained that if NATO thought the mullah was with the Taliban, "they should have arrested him at his school not gone to his house at midnight."

"The people are very angry. They are saying these people killed are innocent civilians," provincial spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh said.

Civilian deaths caused by U.S. and other international forces are highly sensitive in Afghanistan. Public outrage over such deaths prompted the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, last year to tighten the rules on the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.

Last week, hundreds of residents in Logar protested another NATO operation, saying they were not convinced the victims were actually Taliban fighters. Logar is a strategic province because it controls southern land routes into Kabul, allowing weapons, explosives and fighters to move into the capital.

Also Sunday, NATO said a helicopter belonging to a civilian contractor made an emergency landing in Farah due to mechanical problems. There were no reports of injuries, NATO said. The Taliban claimed they shot down the helicopter.

In southeastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked private security guards while they were at a bazaar, killing four Afghans and wounding 12, the government said.

Two of the dead and five of the wounded worked for the U.S. Protection and Investigations security firm, an Interior Ministry statement said. The other victims were civilians.

The Houston-based company could not immediately be reached for comment.

The suicide attacker, who was on foot, targeted the guards at a bazaar in Sahjoy district of Zabul province, the ministry said.

Afghan war winnable says NZ Defence chief

Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae says there has been a positive change in the security situation in Afghanistan in the last eight to nine months.
Speaking from Gallipoli on TVNZ's Q+A programme , he said the majority of Afghanis just want to go about their daily lives, don't want to have a conflict in their backyard and are supportive of the international effort in Afghanistan.Mateparae says it's a matter of holding the course and providing confidence to Afghanis that there is an alternative to what they've had."And my understanding is that there has been a marked improvement in security and in the development lines around the south, and certainly where we are in Bamiyan (province)."We've had remarkable successes there, and if you use Bamiyan as the example of what it could be like, you know where you have a governor who is able to govern effectively, who is able to put development into the appropriate spaces, who's able to carry the people, then it is very very much a winnable war."
Mateparae also says the Taliban should be part of the solution.
To my mind speaking to the Taliban is important, I think it's part of the reconciliation process that is necessary and indeed you know absolutely required in Afghanistan."
And he is adamant New Zealand troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the middle of next year saying they have got other things to do.Mateparae says the deployment of New Zealand Forces in Afghanistan finishes in September 2011, while the SAS has an 18 month deployment which started last September-October.
"So we're matching how we operate in Afghanistan to the conditions in Afghanistan, and also to the conditions at home in relation to just how much the Defence Force can commit, in the event that we've got other things that we need to be concerned about in our own area. We've got modernisation plans that are unrolling, we've got other things to look to."

UNICEF needs 4.5m dollars for IDPs

PESHAWAR: UNICEF in Pakistan urgently needs 4.5 million dollars to provide drinking water and life-saving health and nutrition interventions to the most vulnerable displaced children.

The children's agency is facing a severe lack of funding, which may result in thousands of children and women displaced by the crisis in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa being deprived of essential services.

UNICEF has received a third installment of 58 million dollars it requested as part of a joint humanitarian appeal to provide vital support to the people displaced from the militancy-hit areas into camps and host communities, as well as those returning to Swat and other pacified areas.

As a result, 6,000 malnourished children recently displaced from restive Orakzai and Kurram agencies in tribal areas could be left without nutritional support if UNICEF does not quickly receive the 1 million dollars needed to assist them.

They include 1,000 children who are severely malnourished, and at risk of death without immediate assistance.

If 3 million dollars are not received by early June, critical water services in crowded IDP camps may be at risk from July, exposing about 1,25,000 people, including 1,06,000 in Jalozai camp alone, to potentially deadly diseases such as diarrhoea during summer.

Health services are also dramatically under-funded: UNICEF urgently requires 500,000 dollars to ensure that 42,000 children and 12,000 mothers living in Upper Swat have immunisation and other vital health services.

"Children and women are invariably the most vulnerable members of the community during a crisis like this one," UNICEF acting Deputy Representative, Dr Pirkko Heinonen, said.

"Coming as they do from historically disadvantaged areas, they need our timely support to ensure that they can come through this crisis safely, in good health and with good prospects for their future." Eight Pakistani children die of diarrhoea every hour, amongst IDPs, living in crowded and unsanitary conditions, this rate may soar if clean drinking water is not available.

Lack of services has an especially strong impact on women and children.

In a recent survey, half of women IDPs and a third of children reported illness during the past two weeks, compared to only a quarter of men. "Thanks to support from the international community last year, we were able to help IDPs weather months of displacement," said Dr Heinonen.

Swatis firm against militants despite target killings

PESHAWAR: The recent target killings in Swat valley have caused a wave of fear among the militancy fed-up residents and alarmed many personalities opposed to Taliban but the people are not only resolute to fight them but also trust the military to stop the militants from regaining the valley.

“Neither the target killings nor any other tactic of the militants could frighten us,” said former district nazim of Swat Jamal Nasir Khan. He is the son of former provincial minister, Shujaat Ali Khan. Taliban have attacked Jamal Nasir and his family members several times and torched his house in Shangwatai area in Matta.

“We have witnessed more horrible situation than this one. It could not shake our resolve. We will continue to side with the government and oppose terrorism,” he vowed and said if the militants killed them, the young members of his family would continue the fight. Unidentified attackers, believed to be Taliban, recently killed five persons opposed to them. However, Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the killings.

A former union council nazim Sajjad Khan was killed in Mingora along with two others on April 13. Alamgir Khan and Mukaram Khan were gunned down in Dherai while Bahre Karam and Aqil Shah were shot dead in former Taliban stronghold of Koza Bandai in Kabal tehsil. The three incidents took place within 10 days.

Son of veteran Awami National Party leader Afzal Khan Lala is also upbeat. “Life has started and people have got the courage now,” Muhammad Farooq told The News by phone. He said Taliban’s return was out of question, given the people’s resolve and military presence. Led by his father, he and his family did not leave Swat even when Taliban held sway in the valley. Afzal Khan Lala was officially rewarded for bravely fighting the Taliban.

The military routed Taliban in an operation last year. Though the militants could not recapture any nook in Swat, the deadly suicide attacks proved their presence. The target killings have led several analysts to believe that the militants are not going to give up and have been trying to regroup. The militants dispersed by military action appear to have established some kind of communication, evident from this year’s suicide attacks in Swat and Dir Lower.

“We are investigating to establish whether these are connected incidents or acts against individuals,” said police chief for the Malakand division, Qazi Jamilur Rahman. He had no doubt that the targeted persons were pro-government and said the police would make efforts to stave off such happenings in future. He said three separate investigation teams were probing the cases.

Whatever may be the level of people’s resolve, the target killings have alarmed many. “Its a more serious threat than suicide bombings,” said spokesman for the Swat Qaumi Jirga, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who has been speaking out against the Taliban.

People particularly those opposed to Taliban have reduced their movements. “We avoid attending functions and condolence gatherings,” said Jamal Nasir, who returned to Swat after spending time in Islamabad during the Taliban rule in the valley.

The anti-Taliban people feel insecure because of the enemy being faceless and unidentifiable. Ziauddin thought the target killings, carried out by remnants of Taliban, had caused fear among the residents. But he also sounds optimistic. “I think the wave of target killing may not continue for long, as the security forces are resolute to eliminate the militants.”

The recent incidents also point to lack of intelligence gathering. The Swat Quami Jirga in the first week of April had warned the shift in security forces’ focus to reconstruction from security could cause problems. “Not the lashkars, but effective intelligence-gathering could ensure victory in this war,” opined Ziauddin.