By Mustafa Andalib and Mirwais Harooni
GHAZNI/KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Headmaster Abdul Rahman was heading to work when a man he believes was a member of the Taliban accosted him and warned him to shut his high school in eastern Afghanistan or face the consequences.
Rahman agreed and his school, which teaches girls and boys, became one of more than 100 mixed or girls' schools that have closed in Ghazni province in recent weeks, in what the Ministry of Education says is a Taliban campaign against educating girls.
Rahman has since re-opened his school, just south of provincial capital Ghazni, but is having difficulty in persuading students to return.
"We now have to prove to families that nothing bad will happen to their children," Rahman told Reuters at the one-storey, bright yellow school building, built three years ago by foreign troops.
Afghan girls were banned from receiving an education and women were not allowed to work or vote under the five-year rule of the hardline Islamist Taliban.
Since the group was toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, women have won back those rights. But the situation remains precarious and the future uncertain as the Afghan government and U.S. officials try to negotiate with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement to the end of the increasingly unpopular war, which just entered its 11th year.
The Ministry of Education says 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban enjoy popular support have been shut recently.
"Most of these are girls' schools and it is obvious that the Taliban are responsible for the threats against them," ministry spokesman Amanullah Iman said. The Taliban denied involvement.
Earlier this week unknown attackers burned down a large girls' school in Khogiani district in Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. Five more girls' schools in that district have since shut, said regional education spokesman Asif Shinwari.
Also this week, a roadside bomb in eastern Paktika province targeted the vehicle of five education department workers but missed. They were later gunned down in a firefight, local officials said.
In southern Helmand province, a bastion of the Taliban, education official Mohammad Sarhadi said they have managed to reopen only 100 of the 170 that were forced to shut in recent months.
President Hamid Karzai, who has taken to calling the Taliban "brothers" in recent speeches, urged the group to stop their campaign against education. "I call on the Taliban elders to avoid this and let our children get educated," he said in a radio address last week.
The Taliban blamed the government for the schools' closure. "The enemy is stirring propaganda against us," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
Mujahid said the Taliban deemed education "a necessity", and added that their children attended schools in rural areas.
Senior Afghan peace negotiators say the Taliban are willing to soften their hardline ideologies in an attempt to regain a share of power, and the group has said it is open to domestic business and wants to treat all ethnic groups equally.
But when asked if the Taliban now supported girls' education, Mujahid said: "It is too early to discuss this."
Parents are terrified of sending daughters to school even in the capital Kabul, where the Afghan government and a heavy NATO and foreign diplomatic presence maintain security.
"I am scared my daughters will get poisoned or killed while going to school, " said father Abdul Satar, from the north of the city.
Last year girls at a school near Kabul survived a poisoning attack, similar to that last month in northern Takhar province, where 150 girls became ill after drinking contaminated water in what officials said was an attack by conservative radicals.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Pravin Char)