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Russia: Authorities Baffled By Mystery 'Poisoning' In Chechnya

(RFE/RL) More than 50 people -- most of them schoolchildren, and all but a handful of them girls -- have now been affected by a mysterious ailment in an eastern district of Russia's war-torn republic of Chechnya. For nearly a week, residents have been struck by sudden bouts of tremors, nausea, and shortness of breath. Some doctors have reported incidents of psychotic episodes, with patients experiencing panic attacks or mania. Some regional authorities have said the illness is suggestive of nerve gas poisoning. But toxicologists have reportedly found no evidence to substantiate the claim.

Prague, 21 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Azhan Askhabova says her daughter was standing in line at school when she suddenly smelled something strange -- something like benzene or diesel fuel.

Overcome with nausea, she vomited and fainted. And one by one, the girls in line with her were doing just the same.

It has been nearly a week since the first outbreak of the mystery ailment that by now has affected some 55 people, the vast majority of them schoolgirls.

Since then, nearly 20 patients have been brought to the Republican Pediatric Hospital in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Jaradat Dotuyeva brought her son there after he fell ill. She spoke to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

"My son came back, and said: 'Mama, today I couldn't stay at school, everyone had headaches and their stomachs hurt.' He also said that he was cold, so I bundled him up in warm clothes. His hands and feet were cold. After some time they all seemed to get better," Dotuyeva said.

"For a while it was as if nothing had happened at all. But then everything started all over again. While they were feeling better we took some of them home. But at home everything started again. So we gathered everyone up and brought them here. The vast majority of them are girls. The only boy is my son. But now at home the boys are also complaining about headaches -- my other son, who's still at home, my neighbor's son."

The majority of the patients are from the village of Starogladovskaya in the eastern part of the North Caucasus republic.

Illness Spreads

But the illness is apparently not limited to a single site. Children and adult employees from several schools in different villages have all come down with the same symptoms.

Doctors and toxicologists, some brought in from Moscow, have ruled out food poisoning as a possible cause. The grounds of the schools have also reportedly been screened for radioactivity and found to be normal.

Huseyn Nutayev, the head of the Shelkovskaya administrative district where the schools are located, has suggested that nerve gas could be responsible for the poisoning.

But Sultan Alimkhadzhiyev, Chechnya's deputy health minister and the head doctor at the pediatric hospital in Grozny, told RFE/RL there is no firm evidence the illness is the result of poisoning.

"We can't establish with any certainty that it was poisoning. This kind of situation has been described by an American toxicology institution. We found a description of it in an article. It confirmed that similar incidents have been known to take place. In our republic there was a war," Alimkhadzhiyev said.

"And children, in a psychological sense, have been traumatized by this war. They are very weak, both physically and psychologically. People -- especially woman and girls -- are affected by the anticipation of new traumas. After all, out of all the sick children, there is only one boy. The girls are between 12 and 15 years old -- more susceptible to pressure. This is mentioned in the American article we read."

Blood samples from the patients have been sent to a toxicology center in Makhachkala, the provincial capital of neighboring Daghestan. The first results are expected on 22 December.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered financial assistance to help the Chechen authorities cope with the sudden outbreak.

All the schools in the Shelkovskaya district have been closed until 25 December.

Crisis In Chechnya

Crisis In Chechnya

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