(Kabul) -- Armed political factions in northern Afghanistan are subjecting ethnic Pashtuns to murder, beatings, sexual violence, abductions, looting, and extortion, Human Rights Watch said today. The ongoing campaign of violence and intimidation is forcing thousands of Pashtuns to leave their villages.

Over the last four weeks, teams from Human Rights Watch have visited over two dozen villages and communities across northern Afghanistan, from Faryab province in the northwest to Baghlan in the north central mountains. They have documented over 150 separate incidents of violence and looting over the last three months, some of them as recent as this week. The testimony of Pashtuns across this large area was consistent in its depiction of violence, looting, and intimidation at the hands of local commanders.

The research teams interviewed dozens of Afghan villagers and community leaders, all of whom said they wanted a greater international security presence. They also wanted local political factions disarmed. Human Rights Watch called on the U.N. Security Council to expand the mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to include areas outside of Kabul.

"The only way this violence is going to be checked in the short term is by the presence of international troops," said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The Pashtuns in the north need protection now - they can't wait for a national army to be trained."

The three political factions active in the north are the Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami, Jamiat-e Islami, and Hizb-i Wahdat, drawn largely from the Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara ethnic groups respectively. Since the fall of the Taliban, each group has targeted the Pashtun community in areas under its control, partly in reprisal for these communities' real or perceived association with the predominantly Pashtun Taliban movement, and partly as a result of political competition in northern Afghanistan. The abuses have also occurred in a broader context of violence by armed groups, in which Pashtuns -- lacking political and military power in the north -- are acutely vulnerable.

A typical pattern for these attacks emerged from the testimony of villagers in the Shoor Darya region of Faryab province. They reported that armed Uzbeks associated with the local Junbish faction took away their guns (but not those of other ethnic groups) in mid-November and proceeded to loot the villages thoroughly, violently taking livestock, stored grains, household goods, money and jewelry over the course of the next few weeks - a period one villager described as "forty days of terror." Villagers around Aibak, the capital of Samangan porvince, described an ongoing practice of detention and extortion of local Pashtuns by armed men linked with Junbish.

Junbish is not the only political faction whose gunmen have targeted Pashtuns. Some of the most violent attacks occurred in the Chimtal district of Balkh province, where Hizb-i Wahdat forces were involved in several execution-style murders of Pashtun villagers. In Baghlan province Tajiks belonging to the Jamiat faction looted Pashtun homes in Nahrin district and the Kilagai valley.

Human Rights Watch also received testimony about widely prevalent sexual violence and abduction of women in northern Afghanistan. The testimony was especially striking because of social taboos against discussing such issues. While many women were subject to violence due to the general insecurity in the north, Pashtun women seemed especially singled out for attacks. In central Balkh province, Wahdat and Junbish factions targeted Pashtun women for sexual violence, after women in their own communities suffered similar attacks in the past.

In some areas the most severe violence has subsided. But Human Rights Watch encountered several serious recent incidents of looting and violence in northern Afghanistan. Commanders whose forces were associated with the abuses in Faryab were subsequently removed by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an action that appears to have contributed to a decrease in violence against local Pashtuns, but in other areas, abusive commanders and forces continued to act without restraint or reprimand. Violence is also acute in areas where political factions are currently contesting authority, for instance in and around Mazar-i Sharif, where all three political groups are active.

"The factions clearly can stop the abuses by their local troops when they choose to," Bouckaert said. "But given their past record, it would be foolhardy to rely on them to restore security and protect human rights."

The interim authority's capacity for addressing the violence is also limited. In a positive development, Hamid Karzai, the chairman of Afghanistan's Interim Administration, last week appointed a three-person independent commission to investigate claims of discrimination against ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan. Some initial missteps nothwithstanding, commission members appeared to be taking their fact-finding task very seriously, but it remained unclear what impact their work would have.

Human Rights Watch warned that the anti-Pashtun violence could threaten the success of refugee repatriation. It could also undermine the Loya Jirga process, by which the interim authority will be replaced with a more permanent government. Under the Bonn Agreement, an emergency Loya Jirga or assembly will meet in June 2002. That body will choose a head of state to lead Afghanistan until a more representative government can be elected.

Human Rights Watch intends to release a fuller report of its findings in northern Afghanistan in the near future.