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India school lunch death toll rises

At least 22 children have died and more than two dozen others are sick after eating a free school lunch tainted with insecticide in India.

It is not clear how chemicals ended up in the food in a school in the eastern state of Bihar. One official said the food might not have been properly washed before it was cooked.

The children, between the ages of five and 12, fell ill soon after eating lunch in Gandamal village in Masrakh block, 50 miles north of the state capital Patna. School authorities immediately stopped serving the meal of rice, lentils, soybeans and potatoes as the children started vomiting.

The lunch, part of a popular national campaign to give at least one daily hot meal to children from poor families, was cooked in the school kitchen.

The children were rushed to a local hospital and later to Patna for treatment. In addition to the 22 children who died, another 25 children and the school cook were in hospital undergoing treatment, said PK Sahi, the state education minister. Three children were in serious condition.

Authorities suspended an official in charge of the free meal scheme in the school and registered a case of criminal negligence against the school headmaster, who fled as soon as the children fell ill.

Angry villagers, joined by members of local opposition parties, closed shops and businesses near the school and overturned and burned four police vehicles.

Mr Sahi said a preliminary investigation suggested the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops. It is believed the grain was not washed before it was served at the school, he said.

However, villagers said the problem appeared to be with a side dish of soybeans and potatoes, not grain. Children who had not eaten that dish were fine, although they had eaten the rice and lentils, several villagers said.

Mr Sinha said the cooked food and kitchen utensils have been seized by investigators. "Whether it was a case of negligence or was intentional, we will only know once the inquiry has been conducted," he said.

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