(New York) - Hundreds of women and children, who are relatives of foreign Taliban fighters, have been left stranded by the fighting in Afghanistan and are at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch urged all Afghan forces, the United States, and the international community to facilitate the exit of these civilians from combat zones in Afghanistan.

"Foreign Taliban fighters have left behind hundreds of women and children inside Afghanistan," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Civilians in Afghanistan are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law, regardless of where they are from or what their husbands and fathers may have done."

According to local anti-Taliban administrators contacted by Human Rights Watch, some five hundred foreign women and children, locally believed to be mostly Chechens, have sought refuge in the villages of the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Paktia and Logar.

A smaller group of thirty families, apparently from Arab countries, now live in their vehicles and travel nightly around the canyons of central Paktia and southern Logar provinces to avoid the increasing U.S. bombardment of suspected Taliban mountain strongholds in eastern Afghanistan. This convoy is believed to be accompanied by some foreign armed men. Under international humanitarian law, the presence of small numbers of armed men accompanying such a group does not deprive the women and children of their civilian status.

Staff members of international humanitarian agencies have been rebuffed in their attempts to contact the foreign families. The humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that the Arab group seems to be avoiding any contacts with local tribes. One of the humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch: "These people are dead very soon if someone doesn't help them - it could be the cold, or hunger, or American bombs, or local bandits."

"These women and children had no choice but to go with their male relatives to Afghanistan," said Jones. "Now, their male relatives have been killed or are fighting at the front, and these foreign women and children have nowhere to go to seek safety."

Many of the so-called Chechen families arrived in Paktia following the Taliban's retreat from Mazar-i Sharif and Kabul in mid-November. The Eastern Shura (council), an anti-Taliban group, established control over Gardez and Paktia province on November 14, and a few days later allowed these Chechen families who were not accompanied by armed men to take up residence in villages and towns where extra housing existed.

These families face hardships due to lack of food and the impending winter. The local governing shura of Paktia province has allowed these families to stay in Gardez and neighboring villages, but cannot provide them with adequate food and protection during the winter season.

In several instances, locals have expressed alarm about the presence of foreigners linked to the Taliban in their villages, citing the possibility that their presence may attract bombing. The United States-led coalition has engaged in increased bombing of eastern Afghanistan over the last week as part of its campaign to root out remaining pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in the region.

Pakistan has officially barred the entry of any non-Pakistani foreigners living in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that three young women from Yemen were arrested when they tried to cross into Pakistan at the Chaman border near Kandahar earlier this month. These women are eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two years old; the eldest is accompanied by two daughters aged three and five. All five are held in the regular women's ward at the District Jail in Quetta. These women's plight highlighted the threat facing some 1,500 foreign civilians living in the Kabuli Bazaar region of Kandahar. While the siege around the city tightens, no plan exists to allow for the evacuation of these families.