Afghan authorities are reporting a disturbing rise in the abduction and trafficking of children. Human rights activists and law enforcement officials believe foreign gangsters are behind many of the cases.

Children as young as four-years-old are disappearing across Afghanistan, and officials are deeply concerned.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, says foreign organized crime syndicates are abducting the children, and taking them out of the country, mostly to Pakistan.

Some, he says, are then taken to countries in the Persian Gulf and sold into slavery, as manual laborers or for prostitution. Other cases involve black market organ harvesting, in which the children are imprisoned and then killed, once buyers are found for their kidneys or other body parts.

Mr. Nadery says his commission has also documented cases in which smugglers murder the abducted children and gut them, in order to hide drugs in their corpses. Because of traditional Muslim attitudes on the sanctity of the dead, the bodies are rarely searched by border police.

How many children are falling victim to these gangs remains unclear. Mr. Nadery says most of his information on the scope of the problem comes from monitoring missing children reports, and attempting to gather information from police around the country.

"It is hard to say the exact number, because, first, ... you have very remote villages; there is no direct communication to the police departments," he said. "... To get an exact number, as well, [for] the number in Kabul, we are mainly following the publications [in which] every day or every other day, you can see a few names of those who disappeared and families are looking for them, and in the end, you can find that they were trafficked."

In recent weeks, the U.N. children's organization, UNICEF, has documented at least 50 cases of child trafficking in Afghanistan, but acknowledges the number could be much higher.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali tells VOA that the problem is related to lax law enforcement, amid the chaos that has plagued the country following the 2001 war that overthrew the hardline Taleban.

"This is a problem, particularly in the areas where the security is not very good," said Mr. Jalali. "In the North, we have this problem, and also in some areas in major cities, like Kabul, like Herat, like Kandahar."

With that in mind, Mr. Jalali's ministry is working with the Human Rights Commission to push Afghanistan's police departments to crack down on the problem. International groups, such as UNICEF, are also helping to study the problem.

"There are experts, technical experts, both from the government and from UNICEF, and other assistance organizations, on the ground right now talking to people, meeting with people who have filed such reports, and raising greater awareness among the local authorities in the areas, from which these reports have hailed," explained Chulho Hyun, a UNICEF spokesman.

The Human Rights Commission also recently held a workshop for police officers from across Afghanistan on the subject. Mr. Nadery says the meeting proved a success, with local police offering suggestions on stopping child traffickers.

One problem mentioned involves checking the travel documents of children passing through Afghan border checkpoints.

Mr. Nadery says that, because Afghanistan has a bewildering variety of travel visas, they are very easy to counterfeit.

"As these heads of police mentioned, ... if they can not check if it is a legal document or not, most of them came through the official borders of the country and nobody knew," said Ahmad Nader Nadery.

He added that the Interior Ministry is now aware of the problem and is working on unifying its travel documents and making them more difficult to forge.