DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The UN cultural agency on Wednesday expressed concern over the suspected poisoning of thousands of schoolgirls across Iran and called for an investigation.
Thousands of students in hundreds of mainly girls’ schools have reported being sickened by toxic fumes in incidents dating back to November. There have been no fatalities.
It remains unclear what chemical, if any, may have been used. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks and authorities have not identified any suspects. Unlike neighboring Afghanistan, Iran has no history of religious extremists targeting girls’ education.
UNESCO “urges thorough investigation and immediate action to protect schools and facilitate the return of affected students,” the agency tweeted.
“I am deeply concerned about the reported poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran over the past three months. This is a violation of their right to a safe education,” said Unesco head Audrey Azoulay.
Iranian officials say they are investigating the incidents, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for severe punishment for anyone found responsible.
But authorities have also tightened restrictions on independent media, arresting journalists, activists and others for speaking about the alleged poisonings. This makes it difficult to determine the size and nature of the crisis.
Iran was already heavily restricting the media amid waves of anti-government protests which have been sparked in recent months by the death in September of a young woman detained by the vice squad. Iran’s clerical rulers force women to dress conservatively and cover their hair in public, but have never objected to education for women and girls.
Some Iranian officials have suggested without evidence that the protests and poisoning allegations are part of a foreign conspiracy to foment unrest. Videos circulating online appeared to show teachers protesting the suspected poisonings in several cities on Tuesday.
Iran’s Interior Ministry, meanwhile, announced arrests in six provinces related to the suspected poisonings. But the statement targeted one person accused of making a video sent to “hostile media outlets” and said three others were active in recent protests.
Iran has described some of the alleged poisonings as episodes of “hysteria.”
The World Health Organization documented a similar phenomenon in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, when hundreds of girls across the country complained of strange odors and poisoning. No evidence was found to support the suspicions, and the WHO said it appeared to be a “mass psychogenic illness”.