Aid workers and human rights groups say security conditions in northern Afghanistan are rapidly deteriorating. They are warning that efforts must be made to improve the situation before it extends to other parts of the country.

There is growing concern among aid workers and human rights activists that members of the Pashtun minority are falling victim to revenge attacks by other ethnic groups, which dominate northern Afghanistan.

In a recent report, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said local commanders in the north are subjecting Pashtun Afghans to murder, beatings, sexual violence, looting and extortion. It says, this campaign of "violence and intimidation" has forced thousands of people to leave their villages in the northern provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Samangan and Baghlan.

Aid officials are also worried that increasing insecurity in the region, will create difficulties for on-going relief efforts aimed at helping famine-hit people in northern Afghanistan.

Khaled Mansour is a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program. He told VOA that local commanders in some areas are denying assistance to members of other ethnic groups. In January, he says, armed men in northern Faryab province stole more than 50 tons of food at gunpoint. Mr. Mansour said the food was being distributed in a predominantly Pashtun district of the province. "Local commanders are imposing a fine on any family that does not give a son to serve in the militias. These fine range between $30-100. This is a huge sum of money for poor Afghan peasants," he explained. "That and the drought and the 22 years of conflict in Afghanistan are pushing poor families into measures that make them themselves ashamed. Such as for selling their daughters as young as 12 to rich men in Mazar-e-Sharif in marriage to be able to pay the fines or buy other necessities for their families."

Pasthuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and formed the core of the ousted Taleban regime. But they are a minority in the north, where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks dominate. Members of the Pashtun community claim they are being terrorized by the other ethnic groups seeking retaliations for suffering under the Taleban rule.

The World Food Program's Khaled Mansour says urgent measures are needed to bring the situation under control. "I think in a country like Afghanistan that suffered for more than two decades of ethnic fighting, it's very alarming that local commanders in some of these villages are pushing more men to carrying guns instead of leaving them to plant the fields," he said. "It has to be stopped. What we are trying to do and to alert the authorities and the people and the donors is that we have to stop it now before it becomes a big problem."

U.S. officials and U.N.-backed international peacekeepers have pledged to help build a national Afghan army that will ensure a lasting stability in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

But human rights workers say the presence of international troops can only help check the violence in northern Afghanistan in the short term. They say the Pashtuns there need protection now because they cannot wait for a national army to be trained.