Iran's Khamenei calls girls' poisoning 'unforgivable'

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STORY: Iran's supreme leader has called the recent poisonings of schoolgirls in his country unforgivable, adding that they should be punished by death if deliberate.

Since November more than 1,000 girls have fallen ill, according to state media and officials, with some politicians blaming religious groups opposed to girls' education.

In an interview with state TV on Monday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the matter must be pursued:

"If there are individuals behind this, which there must no doubt be people involved. Some are surely involved in some way. The relevant governing bodies, enforcement and information bodies, must pursue this and find the leads on this crime. The culprits must face the toughest of punishments."

The poisonings began in November in the holy city of Qom and have since spread to 25 of Iran's 31 provinces,

Recent video footage from Iran's WANA news agency showed a handful of girls being treated in hospital.

This student says she went to a PE class and the hall smelt like perfume.

Another says she has numbness all over her body and can't walk at all.

The poisonings have prompted parents to take their children out of school and protest.

Video obtained by Reuters showed a demonstration in the capital Tehran where protesters could be heard chanting:

"They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here."

Reuters was not able to independently confirm the date the video was filmed.

The spate of poisonings come at a critical time for Iran's clerical leaders following months of protests sparked by the death of a young women held by police for flouting hijab rules.

Authorities have accused the Islamic Republic's "enemies" of using the attacks to undermine the clerical establishment.

But suspicions have fallen on hardline groups operating as self-declared guardians of their interpretation of Islam.

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden's press secretary called the poisonings shameful.

The White House has called for an independent investigation to determine if they are related to protests, which would make it well within the mandate of the United Nations fact-finding mission on Iran.