EXCLUSIVE – How Wal-Mart got a foot in the door of India’s retail market


Wed, Dec 05

By Nandita Bose

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) prepared its entry into India‘s supermarket sector in 2010 with a $100 million investment into a consultancy with no employees, no profits and a scant $14,000 in revenue.

The company, called Cedar Support Services, might have been a more obvious selection four months earlier: it began its corporate life as Bharti Retail Holdings Ltd, according to documents filed with India’s Registrar of Companies.

The Cedar investment is now the focus of an investigation by India’s financial crimes watchdog into whether Wal-Mart broke foreign direct investment rules by putting money into a retailer before the government threw open the sector to global players.

Wal-Mart said it was in compliance with India’s FDI guidelines, and had followed all procedures. It said the central government had sought “information and clarification”, which Wal-Mart has provided.

However, several lawyers said the transaction appeared to violate at least the spirit of India’s long-standing ban on foreign investment in supermarkets, which it only lifted in September 2012. When Wal-Mart made the investment in 2010, it was legal for foreigners to own consultants but not retailers, so the shift in Cedar’s business description raised eyebrows.

“This is a complete camouflage,” said Hitesh Jain, a senior partner at ALMT Legal in Mumbai who advises retailers but is not involved with Wal-Mart. “It can be looked at as a violation of FDI rules because Cedar also operates supermarkets, which was a restricted sector back then.”

Graphic on Wal-Mart’s investment http://link.reuters.com/myp44t

Graphic on India’s retail market http://r.reuters.com/cuh79s

The law, however, is murky.

Others stressed that the way Wal-Mart structured the transaction might make it legal. According to the documents filed with India’s registrar, the investment was in the form of debt that was convertible into equity. That clouds the issue of whether Wal-Mart took a stake in Cedar or provided financing.

Bharti and Wal-Mart both declined to provide additional details on how the transaction was structured.

Senior government officials told Reuters that the RBI had asked the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crimes, to look into whether Wal-Mart violated the law by investing in a supermarket retailer before foreign investment rules were relaxed.

If Wal-Mart did break the law, it could face a penalty of up to three times its initial $100 million investment, they said.

That would not only be a setback for Wal-Mart, it would also weaken consensus-building efforts by India’s minority government, led by the Congress party. The party is desperate for more support from across the political spectrum after its decision to let foreign players into India’s retail market came under fire from the opposition and even some of its own allies.

Wal-Mart and other retailers lobbied for years to gain access to India’s market, lured by the promise of a middle class that will one day rival China’s. But local opposition has been fierce because of concern that Wal-Mart and its peers will knock millions of mom-and-pop stores out of business.

COMPLEX WEB

Reuters pieced together details of Wal-Mart’s investment in Cedar by examining records from India’s Registrar of Companies and through interviews with government officials involved with the matter, as well as several lawyers who work with retailers.

The documents reveal a web of companies set up under the Bharti umbrella, which runs India’s largest telecom operator, Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS). The group, which also has retail interests, signed a joint venture with Wal-Mart to run wholesale stores in 2007, shortly after India allowed full foreign ownership of wholesale retail operations.

That same year, the Bharti group formed Bharti Retail Holdings Ltd, which in turn owned a subsidiary called Bharti Retail Ltd which operated supermarkets and hypermarkets.

In December 2009, Bharti Retail Holdings changed its business description to consulting services from retail, the documents filed with India’s Registrar show. A month later, the company changed its name to Cedar.

The timing of the change in name and business is significant because when Wal-Mart invested in Cedar in March 2010, foreign companies could legally own 100 percent of an Indian consulting firm but not a supermarket retailer.

Cedar issued “compulsorily convertible debentures” to Wal-Mart Mauritius Holdings Co Ltd, which would be exchanged for 49 percent equity 18 months after the issue date. The conversion date has since been pushed back twice, to September 2013, which would be after India’s relaxation of rules on retail investment.

Cedar’s cash flow statement for 2010 shows that the funds raised from the debentures were used to finance activities and an attached schedule to the balance sheet shows a transfer of 1.75 billion rupees to its retail unit, raising questions over whether Wal-Mart’s money went into the retail business.

M.P. Achuthan, a communist member of India’s parliament, has accused Wal-Mart of breaking the foreign direct investment law and said he wanted the company to be penalised. Achuthan also wants India to scrap its foreign retail investment policy.

“I am surprised and shocked that the government didn’t see this. This kind of an investment could not have happened without the government’s knowledge,” Achuthan said. “It is impossible.”

Wal-Mart’s Indian partner, Bharti Enterprises, said it had followed the rules but did not address specific questions emailed by Reuters.

“We are in complete compliance of all regulations. All details have been shared with the relevant authorities,” a Bharti Enterprises spokesman said.

Two senior government officials said there had been an initial round of communication between the Reserve Bank of India and the Enforcement Directorate. The RBI asked the law enforcement agency to conduct the investigation.

“RBI believes there is a need to investigate,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. He said both Wal-Mart and Bharti were being investigated because “Wal-Mart allegedly made the investment and Bharti allegedly received it”.

Separately, Wal-Mart said last month it was looking into bribery allegations in several countries including India, Brazil and China. It conducted an earlier probe in Mexico.

DEBT OR EQUITY?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under intense pressure to roll back the decision to permit foreign retailers. Parliament ground to a halt on November 22 over opposition to the reforms until the government agreed to a vote, set for Wednesday.

A year ago, political pressure forced the government to make a U-turn after it first approved foreign investment into supermarkets, an abrupt shift that brought into question India’s ability to build consensus behind long-awaited reforms.

When Wal-Mart made the investment in Cedar in 2010, Indian law permitted foreigners to own “cash-and-carry” wholesale stores, but they were barred from owning what India calls multi-brand retailers, or stores like Wal-Mart’s namesake supermarkets that sell a wide array of products and brands.

Whether the investment in Cedar violated India’s law depends on two issues, according to the lawyers: if Cedar was in fact a retailer rather than a consultancy, and how the investment was structured.

Cedar’s articles of association filed with the Registrar show it called itself a consultancy, but a few pages later it describes a “competing business” as one involved in retail and operates supermarkets, hypermarkets and discount stores.

Even if investigators determine Cedar was a retailer, lawyers said Wal-Mart’s investment may still be legal if the transaction is deemed to be debt. Wal-Mart could then argue that it did not acquire a stake but instead extended a loan.

But according to RBI guidelines set in 2007, compulsorily convertible debentures are considered equity. That would mean Wal-Mart jumped the gun, said Alok Dhir, managing partner Dhir & Dhir Associates.

Dhir said there may be one way around that problem. If Wal-Mart and Bharti included a “put” option on the debentures, it could be considered debt because Wal-Mart would no longer be required to convert the debt to equity.

It is not clear whether this transaction included such a clause, and Wal-Mart and Bharti declined to comment.

LOOPHOLES

Under Indian law, Wal-Mart can be found in violation even if each step it took was within bounds. If the combination of those actions led to a result that circumvented the law, a court can consider the bigger picture, four lawyers said, citing a 1985 Supreme Court of India decision.

However, there are numerous grey areas.

For example, the RBI does not require Indian companies to declare what they do with money they receive from foreign investment.

“Even if the investigation is able to prove that funds were invested into the retail business, the companies can say they are not legally bound to declare it and present an argument,” said Ravi Singhania, managing partner at law firm Singhania & Partners.

The fact that Wal-Mart’s investment was capped at 49 percent and would not give it majority control of Cedar after the debt is converted could also help the companies build a case that the investment was legal.

The rules allow Indian-owned and controlled companies to use foreign capital to fund businesses which their subsidiaries operate. However, lawyers said there is no clarity on whether it is a breach if the unit of the Indian entity operates in a restricted sector, which supermarkets were until September. (Additional reporting by Satarupa Bhattacharjya in New Delhi and Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Emily Kaiser and Mark Bendeich)


“To those who believe in resistance, who live between hope and impatience and have learned the perils of being unreasonable. To those who understand enough
to be afraid and yet retain their fury.”

 

French minister wants Mittal out of France


Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 01:06

FRANCE-ARCELOR-LAKSHMI-MITTAL:French minister wants Mittal out of France

By Nicholas Vinocur and Yann Le Guernigou, moneycontrol.com
PARIS (Reuters) – Steelmaker Mittal, which acquired France’s Arcelor in 2006, is no longer wanted in France due to years of broken promises, Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg said on Monday, intensifying a row over plans to close two furnaces in northeastern France.

Montebourg’s attack on ArcelorMittal, which he later qualified, risks exacerbating tensions in a dispute that is central to Socialist President Francois Hollande‘s efforts to save jobs and reverse years of industrial decline.

It came after Montebourg, one of the most left-wing ministers in the government, said last week France could nationalise the company’s Florange site on a temporary basis while the government tries to find a buyer.

ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker, has said it will shut down two blast furnaces at Florange from December 1 unless the government can find a buyer to operate them.

“We no longer want Mittal in France because they haven’t respected France,” Montebourg said in an interview with Les Echos business daily published on Monday.

He said Chief Executive Lakshmi Mittal had told “shameful lies” since 2006 about the group’s plans and had not kept his promises to the French government.

“The problem with the blast furnaces at Florange is not the blast furnaces at Florange, it’s Mittal,” he said.

A source close to Indian-born Lakshmi Mittal, who according to French media is due to meet with Hollande on Tuesday, told Reuters that management were “very shocked” at Montebourg’s words.

“These are quite violent declarations against a company which employs 20,000 people in France,” the source said.

BACK-PEDALLING

Qualifying his statement later on Twitter, Montebourg said in a message that while ArcelorMittal’s methods were questionable, the group would continue to operate in France, where it has more than 100 industrial sites.

Montebourg’s back-pedalling was part of a pattern for the outspoken minister, who previously embarrassed the government by saying it would not allow Peugeot PSA <peup.pa>to close a plant near Paris, only to retract the pledge.

Libya‘s sovereign investment fund, which Montebourg said in November was interested in acquiring a Petroplus refinery in northern France, denied on Monday having expressed interest in the refinery, according to Libya’s Lana news agency.

The fate of Florange, situated in the former heart of French steel making country, became a symbol of France’s flagging industry during campaigning for the May election and is now a test of Hollande’s promise to reverse the decline.

Failure to save jobs at Florange would add to a list of industrial shutdowns, including Peugeot PSA’s production site, and risks deepening fears in the public that the government is powerless to save jobs.

Unemployment is at a 13-year high of over 10 percent and October jobless claims due on Tuesday are expected to show another increase.

A spokeswoman for Montebourg was not immediately available to comment. ArcelorMittal, which employs some 20,000 people across France, declined to comment.

Last week, Montebourg said the government had received two offers from buyers interested in acquiring more than just the two blast furnaces, but gave no further details.

ArcelorMittal has denied having received any such offers.

A source close to the company said plans to shut down blast furnaces including those at Florange pre-dated the merger between Arcelor and Mittal, which had never promised to keep the site operating when it signed the deal in 2006.

 

(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Sophie Hares)

 

#India- #Abbott suspends giving gifts to doctors #goodnews #medicalethics


 

 

 

 

By Frederik Joelving

 

NEW YORK | Tue Oct 16, 2012 6:03pm EDT

 

(Reuters Health) – Abbott Laboratories Inc has instructed its sales representatives in India not to give gifts to doctors, who are prohibited by local law from accepting them, a practice that has been used as a bargaining chip by companies wanting a piece of the country’s burgeoning healthcare market.

 

According to an internal email dated October 11 from Sudarshan Jain, managing director of Abbott Healthcare Pvt. Ltd, the gift-giving has been temporarily suspended.

 

“Only Abbott-approved clinical/scientific literature may be distributed to current and potential customers,” said the email, which was reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday. “No brand reminders or therapy reminders in your possession should be given to any current and potential customer and no further brand reminders or therapy reminders should be ordered.”

 

Accepting gifts or travel arrangements from drugmakers is against the law in India, but enforcement is inconsistent.

 

Public health experts say gift-giving leads to dangerous overprescribing and unnecessary use of expensive medications when cheaper versions are available. That can be a significant burden for the 400 million people in India who live on less than $1.25 a day.

 

A sales representative with Abbott Healthcare told Reuters that therapy reminders are low-value items such as pens, whereas brand reminders refer to electrical appliances and other pricier merchandise.

 

The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not worried about his job getting harder without the gifts, but, he quipped, it would certainly make his bag lighter.

 

As multinational drug companies ramp up investments in emerging markets to realize billions of dollars in annual sales, they have faced increased scrutiny from the United States and European governments. U.S. authorities are currently probing a number of leading global drugmakers for kickbacks and bribery overseas.

 

A Reuters investigation in September showed Abbott’s Indian subsidiaries plied doctors with scanners, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers and similar items in return for prescribing the company’s drugs to patients. Sales representatives were shown lists of gifts in strategy guides issued by the company.

 

In August, Pfizer Inc paid $60.2 million to settle a U.S. probe involving illegal payments to win business overseas, including kickbacks such as cellphones and tea sets given to doctors in China. Last year, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $70 million to settle U.S. charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) that it had bribed healthcare providers in Greece, Poland and Romania.

 

Scott Davies, a spokesman for Chicago-based Abbott Labs, confirmed the decision but declined to say what had prompted the move. He said he was not aware of any inquiries from regulators about the company’s dealings in India.

 

“This is an internal action,” he told Reuters. “We are suspending that brand reminder program while we review it.”

 

Davies said the suspension encompasses Abbott Healthcare and Abbott True Care, but did not have information on whether other Indian subsidiaries would continue the practice. He declined to address travel payments.

 

(Editing by Ivan Oransky, Michele Gershberg, Maureen Bavdek and Claudia Parsons)

 

 

Al Jazeera: Report says EU nuclear reactors need $ 32 BILLION to prevent disaster!


 

Report says EU nuclear reactors need repair

A leaked report on Europe’s nuclear reactors found that up to $32bn needs to be invested to prevent disaster.
Last Modified: 03 Oct 2012 09:23

Almost all of Europe’s nuclear reactors are in need of an urgent overhaul that could cost as much as $32bn, according to a leaked draft-report by the European Commission.

The Commission is expected on Thursday to finalise its stress test report, which was designed to ensure that a disaster similar to the one at Japan‘s Fukushima could not happen again.

The report will be debated by EU ministers later this month..

After that, the Commission intends in 2013 to propose new laws, including on insurance and liability to “improve the situation of potential victims in the event of a nuclear accident”, the draft obtained by Reuters news agency said.

Of the 134 EU nuclear reactors grouped across 68 sites, 111 have more than 100,000 inhabitants living within 30 km.

Safety regimes vary greatly and the amount that needs to be spent to improve them is estimated at $13-32bn across all the reactors, the draft says.

France‘s nuclear watchdog has already said the country, which relies on nuclear power for about 75 per cent of its electricity, needs to invest billions of euros.

The lesson of Fukushima was that two natural disasters could strike at the same time and knock out the electrical supply system of a plant completely, so it could not be cooled down.

The stress tests found that four reactors, in two different countries, had less than one hour available to restore safety functions if electrical power was lost.

By contrast, four countries operate additional safety systems fully independent from the normal safety measures and
located in areas well-protected against external events. A fifth country is considering that option.

The main finding, the draft says, is that there are “continuing differences” between member states’ safety regimes.

It also says provisions to ensure the independence of national regulators are “minimal”.

Imad Khadduri, a nuclear analyst, told Al Jazeera that this report reflects “what is now an issue in Japan, which is the complacency of the nuclear industry, and the following up with modifications and updates on safety issues.”

“European power reactors should take much more strident efforts in fixing and implementing the safety issues.

Khadduri went on to say that if the public “is going to be alarmed by the $30bn cost of it all, they should be more worried about how much it could cost to decommission reactors, which is incredibly costly.”

Voluntary exercises

The stress tests are a voluntary exercise to establish whether nuclear plants can withstand natural disasters, aircraft crashes and management failures, as well as whether adequate systems are in place to deal with power disruptions.

All 14 member states that operate nuclear plants took part, however, as did Lithuania, which is decommissioning its nuclear units.

From outside the 27-member bloc, Switzerland and Ukraine joined in the exercise.

The tests were meant to have been completed around the middle of the year, but countries were given extra time to assess more reactors.

Non-governmental organisations are among those who have criticised the process as not going far enough and having no powers to force the shut-down of a nuclear plant.

“The stress tests only give a limited view,” said Roger Spautz, energy campaigner at Greenpeace, which believes nuclear power should be phased out.

He cited independent research earlier this year which said some European reactors needed to be shut down immediately, as well as the example of Belgium, where the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors have been halted because of suspected cracks.

The draft report says the stress tests are not a one-off exercise and will be followed up. Existing legislation also needs to be enforced, it said.

The deadline for passing the existing nuclear safety directive into national law was July 2011. The Commission started infringement proceedings against 12 member states that missed it.

To date, two have still not complied but the report did not specified which ones.

The Commission does not comment on leaked drafts.

But on Monday, the EU energy spokeswoman said the recommendations were being finalised and would not be “very,
very detailed”.

In France, the nuclear watchdog and operator EDF said they would not comment before seeing the official report.

 

 

Myanmar lifts BAN on journals after protests #CENSORSHIP #GOODNEWS


Journalists pose with a shirt during a protest along the streets of Yangon, August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

YANGON | Mon Aug 6, 2012 6:51pm IST

(Reuters) – Myanmar‘s government has agreed to lift suspensions on two weekly journals within two weeks, their editors said on Monday, just days after rare protests by journalists in two cities to demand more press freedom.

Editors of the Burmese-language Voice Weekly and The Envoy told Reuters that Myanmar’s censorship board had informed them they could resume publishing by August 18, without giving a reason for why the suspensions would be lifted.

Publication of the journals was halted indefinitely late last month, promoting an outcry among journalists who are enjoying freedom to publish not seen under the five decades of authoritarian military rule that ended in March last year.

The quasi-civilian government has loosened its grip on the press as part of a surprise reform drive. But some press censorship still remains and journalists pushing the boundaries of the restrictions have complained that suspensions are tantamount to intimidation.

Nearly 100 journalists rallied against the suspension in Yangon on Saturday and about 60 protested in the second-biggest city, Mandalay a day later, most wearing black T shirts saying “stop killing the press”.

“The reason for lifting the suspension, I think, would be because of the rallies by the journalists,” said an editor of another journal, who asked not to be named.

Monday’s edition of the Messenger journal blacked-out its entire front page and cited a line from the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression.

The Nation journal went a step further, uploading on its Facebook page what it said was a censored copy of its front page story of the protest, which was covered with crosses in red ink.

It was not known exactly why the two publications were suspended. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, as the censors are called, said they had “violated rules and regulations”, without elaborating.

The Voice is also facing a lawsuit, lodged by Myanmar’s Ministry of Mines, after it published a report alleging graft by ministries under the previous government.

Myanmar’s government has insisted it will scrap censorship as soon as a press law is promulgated, but journalists are concerned some restrictions will remain and recommendations for the legislation might be ignored.

The government’s mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, carried an editorial in its Sunday edition, apparently in response to the protests, calling for patience and reiterating that censorship would soon be abolished.

It said the country was “not still accustomed to the freedom we have not enjoyed before” and to “rush could ruin results.”

(Reporting by Thu Rein Hlaing; Editing by Martin Petty and Ed Lane; Editing by Ed Lane)

 

Germany sets new solar power record, institute says


Solar Powered Street Light

Solar Powered Street Light (Photo credit: joostboers)

 

Sat, May 26 2012

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) – German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours on Friday and Saturday, the head of a renewable energy think tank said.

The German government decided to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, closing eight plants immediately and shutting down the remaining nine by 2022.

They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and bio-mass.

Norbert Allnoch, director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) in Muenster, said the 22 gigawatts of solar power per hour fed into the national grid on Saturday met nearly 50 percent of the nation’s midday electricity needs.

“Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity,” Allnoch told Reuters. “Germany came close to the 20 gigawatt (GW) mark a few times in recent weeks. But this was the first time we made it over.”

The record-breaking amount of solar power shows one of the world’s leading industrial nations was able to meet a third of its electricity needs on a work day, Friday, and nearly half on Saturday when factories and offices were closed.

Government-mandated support for renewables has helped Germany became a world leader in renewable energy and the country gets about 20 percent of its overall annual electricity from those sources.

Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

SUNSHINE

Some critics say renewable energy is not reliable enough nor is there enough capacity to power major industrial nations. But Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany is eager to demonstrate that is indeed possible.

The jump above the 20 GW level was due to increased capacity this year and bright sunshine nationwide.

The 22 GW per hour figure is up from about 14 GW per hour a year ago.Germany added 7.5 GW of installed power generation capacity in 2012 and 1.8 GW more in the first quarter for a total of 26 GW capacity.

“This shows Germany is capable of meeting a large share of its electricity needs with solar power,” Allnoch said. “It also shows Germany can do with fewer coal-burning power plants, gas-burning plants and nuclear plants.”

Allnoch said the data is based on information from the European Energy Exchange (EEX), a bourse based in Leipzig.

The incentives through the state-mandated “feed-in-tariff” (FIT) are not without controversy, however. The FIT is the lifeblood for the industry until photovoltaic prices fall further to levels similar for conventional power production.

Utilities and consumer groups have complained the FIT for solar power adds about 2 cents per kilowatt/hour on top of electricity prices in Germany that are already among the highest in the world with consumers paying about 23 cents per kw/h.

German consumers pay about 4 billion euros ($5 billion) per year on top of their electricity bills for solar power, according to a 2012 report by the Environment Ministry.

Critics also complain growing levels of solar power make the national grid more less stable due to fluctuations in output.

Merkel’s centre-right government has tried to accelerate cuts in the FIT,which has fallen by between 15 and 30 percent per year, to nearly 40percent this year to levels below 20 cents per kw/h. But the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, has blocked it.

($1 = 0.7992 euros)

Breivik trial lay judge dismissed over Facebook


Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Reuters | Apr 17,2012

OSLO (Reuters) – The court putting Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik on trial for massacring 77 people last year dismissed a lay judge on Tuesday after he posted a comment on a Facebook page saying the gunman should face the death penalty. The trial against Breivik began on Monday, with two professional judges, as well as three lay judges chosen from civil society, presiding over the court. After the killings last July, lay judge Thomas Indreboe posted ‘the death penalty is the only just outcome of this case’ on a Facebook page. The dismissal is not expected to lead to any mistrial verdict and Breivik is still expected to take the stand for the first time on Tuesday. He has pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in defence of Norway against multi-culturalism. If found guilty and sane, Breivik faces a maximum 21-year sentence but could be held indefinitely if he is considered a continuing danger. If declared insane, he would be held in a psychiatric institution indefinitely with periodic reviews.

(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi and Walter Gibbs, Writing by Alistair Scrutton)

Afghan schoolgirls poisoned in anti-education attack


A young Pashtun girl looks out from the window of a classroom during recess at a government funded coeducational school in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar September 20, 2005. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/Files

April 17,2012 (Reuters) – About 150 Afghan schoolgirls were poisoned on Tuesday after drinking contaminated water at a high school in the country’s north, officials said, blaming it on conservative radicals opposed to female education.

Since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban, which banned education for women and girls, females have returned to schools, especially in Kabul.

But periodic attacks still occur against girls, teachers and their school buildings, usually in the more conservative south and east of the country, from where the Taliban insurgency draws most support.

“We are 100 percent sure that the water they drunk inside their classes was poisoned. This is either the work of those who are against girls’ education or irresponsible armed individuals,” said Jan Mohammad Nabizada, a spokesman for education department in northern Takhar province.

Some of the 150 girls, who suffered from headaches and vomiting, were in critical condition, while others were able to go home after treatment in hospital, the officials said.

They said they knew the water had been poisoned because a larger tank used to fill the affected water jugs was not contaminated.

“This is not a natural illness. It’s an intentional act to poison schoolgirls,” said Haffizullah Safi, head of Takhar’s public health department.

None of the officials blamed any particular group for the attack, fearing retribution from anyone named.

The Afghan government said last year that the Taliban, which has been trying to adopt a more moderate face to advance exploratory peace talks, had dropped its opposition to female education.

But the insurgency has never stated that explicitly and in the past acid has been thrown in the faces of women and girls by hardline Islamists while walking to school.

Education for women was outlawed by the Taliban government from 1996-2001 as un-Islamic.

(Reporting by Mohammad Hamid; Writing by Jack Kimball, Editing by Rob Taylor and Sanjeev Miglani)

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