A terrorist cell accused of squirting acid in schoolgirls' faces has been rounded up in southern Afghanistan.
The country's President, Hamid Karzai, called for the perpetrators to face public executions. Police arrested 10 Taleban militants, and "several" have already confessed, according to the Kandahar governor, Rahmatullah Raufi.
They are accused of squirting acid from water pistols at three groups of female students and their teachers as they walked to class in Afghanistan's volatile second city.
At least 15 women were injured. One of the victims, a teacher called Nuskaal, who was burnt through her burkha, said yesterday: "If these people are found guilty, the government should throw the same acid on them. Then they should be hanged."
Several girls were sent to hospital with severe facial burns. One teenager couldn't open her eyes for days. The attacks sparked condemnation from around the world.
The UN described the attacks as a "hideous crime". The US First Lady, Laura Bush, called them "cowardly".
Mr Raufi said the men were paid by senior Taleban commanders in Pakistan to carry out the attacks on 12 November. He said they will face trial in an open court as soon as the police investigation is complete.
An official at the Interior Ministry in Kabul said the suspects were Afghan exiles who had been living in Pakistan's volatile tribal areas.
A Taleban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, insisted yesterday that Taleban militants were not involved in the attacks. Kandahar was the spiritual home of the hardline Taleban regime, and it was their capital until they were removed from power in 2001.
When they ruled Afghanistan, girls were banned from going to school. There are now almost two million girl students across the country.
Capital punishment has widespread popular support in Afghanistan, and it is enshrined in the country's constitution, which incorporates sharia law.
Last year President Karzai ordered almost a dozen snap executions of death row prisoners, in an attempt to bolster support among Afghans unhappy at rising crime.
- THE INDEPENDENT