At least 10 schools have been attacked by unidentified gunmen in different parts of Afghanistan in the past three weeks, Ministry of Education (MoE) officials told IRIN.
Armed assailants, believed to be associated with Taliban insurgents, have torched three schools in Kunduz, two in Kandahar, and one school each in Helmand, Paktia, Khost, Wardak and Farah provinces since the new school year began on 23 March, according to the MoE.
Armed men broke into Ortablaq school in Imam Saheb District of northern Kunduz Province and cut-off the ears of a watchman before setting the school ablaze on 4 April, the Ministry of Interior said in a press release.
Apart from the torchings, there have been other attacks: Kandahar Province Department of Education officials said five schools had been attacked in the same period; in another incident one teacher was reportedly killed when a school was attacked in Khost Province, southeastern Afghanistan, in late March, MoE said.
"Nearly all attacks on schools take place during the night so there are no casualties among students," said Hamid Elmi, an MoE spokesman in Kabul.
Ministry of Education statistics shown to IRIN indicate there were 2,450 "terrorist" attacks on schools from March 2006 to February 2008. In the same period 235 schoolchildren, students, teachers and other education workers were killed, and 222 wounded.
About 500 schools have remained closed due to insecurity, particularly in the volatile south where Taliban insurgency has also hindered humanitarian and development access. "Up to 300,000 students cannot go to school because of insecurity and threats," said the MoE’s Elmi.
`Madrasas’ not attacked
Taliban insurgents oppose female education and say the school curriculum is "un-Islamic", a charge rejected by the Afghan government and moderate Islamic scholars.
|Up to 60 percent of schools in Afghanistan are outdoor, lacking any building, according to the Ministry of Education|
"Attacking schools, children and civilians is fundamentally against Islamic principles," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a gathering of teachers in Kabul in March. He said insurgents were attacking schools and schoolchildren at the behest of the "enemies of Afghanistan".
On the other hand, none of Afghanistan's 336 Islamic schools or `madrasas’, or their 91,000 students, have been attacked in recent years, Elmi noted.
“Though the government promotes both `madrasas’ and [secular] schools, the Taliban only attack schools," Elmi said.
Most of the Taliban's senior leaders, including spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, were reportedly educated in `madrasas’ in Pakistan, and `madrasas’ flourished in Afghanistan during their six-year rule (1995-2001).
Record numbers at school
The school attacks intensified just as a record six million pupils went back to school. "Never before in the history of Afghanistan were six million students at school," said Elmi, adding that over 35 percent of them were female.
The unprecedented increase in the number of children at school compares well with the the situation six years ago when fewer than two million were at school, but the safety of staff and pupils has become a growing concern, officials said.