updated 1/4/2006 5:41:19 PM ET 2006-01-04T22:41:19

Militants broke into the home of an Afghan headmaster and beheaded him while forcing his wife and eight children to watch, the latest in a spate of attacks blamed on the Taliban that have forced many schools to close.

The insurgents claim that educating girls is against Islam and they even oppose government-funded schools for boys because they teach subjects besides religion.

Four armed men stabbed Malim Abdul Habib, 45, eight times before decapitating him in the courtyard of his home in the town of Qalat late Tuesday, according to provincial government spokesman Ali Khail and a cousin of the victim, Dr. Esanullah.

Habib was slain after he refused to go with the militants to meet their commander, said Esanullah, who like many Afghans uses one name.

The assailants made Habib’s wife and four sons and four daughters, aged 2 to 22, watch but did not hurt them physically, Khail said.

The militants then fled, and Habib’s wife called the police, he said. Investigators were questioning three people who were guests in the victim’s home.

The government condemned the killing. Masood Khalili, the Afghan ambassador to Turkey, where President Hamid Karzai was visiting Wednesday, called the attack a “disgusting action by the enemies of Afghanistan.”

Habib was the headmaster and a teacher at Shaikh Mathi Baba high school, attended by 1,300 boys and girls. It is located in Zabul, a remote mountainous province populated mainly by Pashtuns and bordering Pakistan that is a hotbed of Taliban militancy.

Zabul province’s education director, Nabi Khushal, blamed the Taliban for the killing, saying the insurgents have put up posters around Qalat demanding that schools for girls be closed and threatening to kill teachers.

“Only the Taliban are against girls being educated,” he said. “The Taliban often attack our teachers and beat them. But this is the first time one has been killed in this province.”

Esanullah said Habib resumed his more then 20-year teaching career two years ago, after the Taliban threatened him while he was working for a group helping the disabled. Since then, the Taliban told him twice to stop teaching.

Hundreds of students and teachers attended Habib’s funeral Wednesday.

Taliban spokesmen and commanders in the region, one of the most volatile in Afghanistan, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Taliban's legacy
Dozens of schools have been attacked and burned since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Most of the attacks have come at night and not caused fatalities, but in October, gunmen shot and killed another headmaster in front of his students at a boys’ school in Kandahar province, the former stronghold of the Taliban regime.

Before the Taliban were forced from power, they prohibited girls from attending school and forced boys to study only Islam as part of their drive to establish what they considered a “pure” Islamic state.

Cleric Sayed Omer Munib, a member of Afghanistan’s top Islamic council, said there was nothing in Islam that prevents girls from studying.

“Nowhere in the Quran does it say that girls do not have the right to education,” he said. “It says that ’people should be educated.’ This means girls too.”

Though hundreds of thousands of children have returned to school, many have not. There are some 1.2 million primary school-aged girls alone who are not being educated, according to the United Nations.

Khushal said 100 of Zabul province’s 170 registered schools have closed over the past two to three years because of security fears, mostly in outlying districts. Of Zabul’s 35,000 students, only 2,700 are girls, he said.

UNICEF official expresses concern
A spokesman for UNICEF said the attacks were “incredibly worrying.”

“Militants are clearly trying to intimidate communities and force families not to send their girls to school,” said Edward Carwardine. “We hope these incidents will not deter families. ... Fortunately, so far we have not seen a decline in girls attending.”

He said about 90 percent of Afghan adults are in favor of girls being educated, with many of those who oppose it being in conservative rural areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns where the Taliban — who also are Pashtun — are most powerful.

Last year saw a surge in violence in Afghanistan, with militants from the Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups stepping up attacks on government-linked targets and U.S.-led coalition forces. The fighting killed about 1,600 people, many of them militants.

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