The number of schoolchildren affected by poisonings in Iran has climbed to more than 5,000, a lawmaker investigating the cases has revealed.
The shocking spate of poisonings has targeted mainly female pupils since it was first seen in late November, with some needing hospital treatment.
The mystery poisonings have gripped Iran, triggering a wave of angry protests and pleas from distressed parents for action from the authorities.
They have also sparked international condemnation, as well as calls from the West for an independent investigation amid concerns that extremist religious groups want women and girls out of the classroom.
Yesterday, the White House said that investigating the poisonings could fall under the mandate of the United Nations.
The number of schoolchildren affected by poisonings in Iran has climbed to more than 5,000, according to an investigator. Pictured: people gather around an ambulance outside a girls school after reports of poisoning in Fardis, Alborz province
Mohammad-Hassan Asafari, a member of the parliamentary fact-finding committee which is currently looking into the poisonings, told the ISNA news agency yesterday: ‘Twenty-five provinces and approximately 230 schools have been affected, and more than 5,000 schoolgirls and boys poisoned.’
‘Various tests are being carried out to identify the type and cause of the poisonings. So far, no specific information has been obtained regarding the type of poison used.’
The first cases were reported soon after the start of nationwide protests sparked by the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict dress code for women.
‘If these poisonings are related to participation in protest then it is well within the mandate of the UN independent international fact finding mission on Iran to investigate,’ said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
She further called for a ‘credible independent investigation’ into the poisonings.
Scores of schools have been hit by the suspicious attacks, with pupils suffering symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to nausea and vertigo after reporting ‘unpleasant’ odours on school premises.
Calling the poisonings an ‘unforgivable crime’, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave orders Monday for the perpetrators to be tracked down ‘without mercy’.
According to the state-run IRNA news agency, Khamenei said: ‘If the poisoning of students is proven, those behind this crime should be sentenced to capital punishment and there will be no amnesty for them.’
A person is lifted to an ambulance outside a girls’ school after reports of poisoning in Ardabil, Iran
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured) has declared that those behind the poisoning of over 1,000 schoolgirls should be sentenced to death if it is proven that attacks were deliberate
A young woman lies in hospital after reports of poisoning at an unspecified location in Iran
It was the first time the country’s Supreme Leader, who has the final say on all matters of state, has spoken publicly about the suspected poisonings,
Last week, President Ebrahim Raisi tasked the interior ministry with providing continuous updates on the investigation.
The ministry has announced no arrests so far, even as new cases continue to be reported.
‘In less than five percent of the students transferred to hospital, irritant materials were found which led to their ill-health,’ the ministry said in its latest update Monday.
‘Fortunately, so far, no toxic or dangerous substances have been found in any of the students transferred to medical centres.’
In a briefing yesterday, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre called for a ‘credible independent investigation’ into the poisonings
The latest case – reported by the ISNA news agency – involved 40 pupils, all of them female, in the restive southeastern city of Zahedan.
The first cases were reported in Iran’s Shiite clerical capital of Qom in late November, a month after the Amini protests that later spread to universities and schools.
On Tuesday, Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi warned ‘those who spread lies and rumours’ about the poisonings that ‘they will be dealt with decisively and legally,’ the judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
Officials have only acknowledged the incidents in recent weeks and have provided no details on who may be behind the attacks, or what chemicals – if any – have been used.
Protests were sparked across the country and the world following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September. Pictured: Protesters hold a sign depicting Amini at a rally in Brussels, Belgium
People in Rome, Italy take part in the ‘Freedom Rally for Iran demonstration against the Iranian regime last month
Unlike neighbouring Afghanistan, Iran has no history of religious extremists targeting women’s education.
But the suspected attacks have been seen by some commentators as part of an extremist response to the protests led by women and girls that have swept Iran in recent months.
Protests were sparked across the country and the world following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died under suspicious circumstances in police custody in September.
Over the weekend, fresh protests against the suspected poisonings were seen in Iran and around the world.
Worried parents protested in Iran’s capital Tehran and other cities on Saturday, with a number gathering outside an Education Ministry building in western Tehran according to Reuters.
Further protests were held in Tehran and other cities including Isfahan and Rasht, unverified videos suggest.
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