Iran on first arrests as school poisoning cases surpass 5,000 mark

TEHRAN: Iran announced Tuesday it has made the first arrests in a string of mysterious schoolgirl poisonings that have affected more than 5,000 students since late November.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday called for a “merciless” hunt down of the perpetrators of the “unforgivable crime” as public anger mounts.

“Based on the intelligence and investigative actions of the intelligence agencies, a number of people have been arrested in five provinces and the relevant authorities are conducting a full investigation,” Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi told state television.

He did not name those arrested and did not discuss possible motives.

Poisoning has swept scores in Iranian schools since late November, with students suffering symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to nausea and dizziness after reporting “unpleasant” odors on school premises. Some were treated in hospital.

“Twenty-five (out of 31) provinces and about 230 schools have been affected, and more than 5,000 school girls and boys have been poisoned,” Mohammad-Hassan Asafari, a member of the parliamentary inquiry committee, told ISNA news agency on Monday.

“Various tests are being carried out to identify the nature and cause of the poisoning. So far, there is no concrete information about the type of poison used.”

The mysterious poisoning has sparked a wave of anger and calls for action for authorities.

They have also sparked international concern and Western calls for an independent investigation, especially as the first cases were reported shortly after nationwide protests began over the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women.

“Conspiracy of the Enemy”

President Ebrahim Raisi last week tasked the interior and intelligence ministries with providing ongoing updates on the poisoning cases, calling them “enemy conspiracies to foment fear and despair among the people.”

“Less than five percent of hospitalized students were found to have irritating materials that led to their ill health,” the Home Office said in its latest update on Monday.

“Fortunately, no toxic or hazardous substances have been found in any of the students who have been transferred to medical centers.”

Deputy Health Minister Saeed Karimi said the symptoms were “respiratory irritation, abdominal pain, weakness and lethargy”.

“These inhaled irritants don’t necessarily have to be a gas, but can be in the form of a powder or paste, or even a liquid, which when poured over a heater or vaporized by heat can cause complications,” he added.

The latest case – reported by the ISNA news agency – involved 40 high school students in the troubled southeastern city of Zahedan on Tuesday.

The White House on Monday called for a “credible independent investigation” into the poisoning.

The first cases were reported in late November in Qom, Iran’s Shia spiritual capital, a month after the Amini protests that later spread to universities and schools.

On Tuesday, Tehran’s prosecutor Ali Salehi warned “those who spread lies and rumours” about the poisonings that “they will be dealt with decisively and legally,” the justice website Mizan Online reported.

“Last week, court cases and indictments were filed against media executives Hammihan, Rouydad 24 and Shargh, as well as several individuals,” Salehi added. -AFP Iran on first arrests as school poisoning cases surpass 5,000 mark

Russell Falcon

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