Iran's President Blames 'Enemies' for Poisoning of Schoolchildren


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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blamed the nation's "enemies" on Friday for the recent series of incidents in which noxious fumes have sickened hundreds of schoolchildren, particularly girls, across the nation.

In a speech to a crowd in southern Iran that was carried live on state television, Raisi said the nation's "foes are trying to create unrest in the various fields in the country."

He said Iran's "enemies said seek to cause problems on the streets, markets, and in schools to disappoint the Iranian nation."

Iran's state-sponsored news agency IRNA reported earlier this week that Raisi ordered an immediate investigation of the schoolgirls' poisoning in more than 30 schools in at least four cities going back to November, including in Iran's Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

It was the first time the Iranian president has publicly addressed the suspected poisonings affecting the schoolchildren.

Some estimates say as many as 900 schoolgirls have been affected by the suspected poisonings, prompting international observers to suggest the incidents were attacks on educating young women.

Asked about the incidents in an interview with VOA on Friday, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby called the situation "deeply disturbing," though he stopped short of blaming Iran for the poisonings.

"I'm afraid we don't have more information now about these reports of poisonings," he said, noting that the Iranian government is investigating.

"We want that investigation to be thorough, complete and transparent with the Iranian people, as well as the rest of the world," Kirby told VOA. "Little girls should not have to worry about their safety when they go to school, they should only have to worry about their grades."

He would not say whether the United States is prepared to offer help to solve the incidents.

The U.N. children's humanitarian agency, UNICEF, offered Thursday to help Iran solve the incidents.

In a statement posted to its Twitter account, UNICEF said, "School is a safe haven for children and teenagers to learn in a safe and supportive environment. Such events can have a negative impact on the high rate of education of children, especially girls, which has been achieved in recent decades."

The statement noted, "UNICEF stands ready to provide any support needed."

Some of the students have been sickened to the extent they needed to be hospitalized. Children have complained about feeling lethargic or unable to move, while others have said they have headaches and heart palpitations. Some have described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.

The poisonings follow months of nationwide anti-government protests, sparked by the death last September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, while in the custody of the morality police. She had been arrested days earlier for allegedly violating Iran's strict Islamic dress code by improperly wearing her hijab.

Hundreds of protesters, and some security personnel, have been killed in street demonstrations targeting the government's treatment of Amini.

VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.