Afghan extremists have attacked hundreds of teachers, students, and schools in recent months, leaving thousands of children, particularly girls, without access to education

The new report, released this week by Human Rights Watch in New York, documents scores of brutal attacks on Afghan schools.

New schools have been burned to the ground, hundreds of students threatened, and their teachers savagely beaten. In one particularly chilling case a school principal was beheaded in front of his children.

Sam Zarifi, who co-wrote the report, says his team documented more than 200 separate cases since January 2005.

"What is disturbing about that is the rate of attacks has escalated sharply, so there were more attacks in the first half of 2006 than all of 2005," he said.

He says that on average, there is one attack every day and as a result, dozens of districts have been forced to close their schools.

"Our estimates are now that hundreds of thousands of students, particularly girls, are being kept out of schools and these are girls that would have been in school otherwise, so that is a significant blow to the advances made after the fall of the Taleban," continued Zarifi.

When the Taleban controlled Afghanistan, the Islamic militants claimed women's education was unIslamic and banned girls from schools.

The country's new democratic government, installed after the Taleban was ousted in 2001, has made rebuilding schools and expanding education for girls a top priority.

Human Rights Watch says most of the recent attacks are carried out by Taleban insurgents and their supporters.

But Zarifi says criminal gangs, many with ties to the country's illegal drug industry, are increasingly involved in the violence.

Both groups, he says, hope to weaken the central government and expand their control over local communities.

The U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces currently are mounting a massive counterinsurgency operation in the Taleban's traditional stronghold in southern Afghanistan, which is also a major opium-producing region.

But Zarifi says security alone will not be enough. He says local religious leaders, most of whom have been relatively silent on the issue, need to get involved.

"There has to be a very clear statement from the Afghan clergy, and from clergy around the Muslim world, condemning such attacks and clarifying that Islam is a religion that greatly values education and that those that attack these schools are weakening the Muslim people of Afghanistan," he said.

After more than 30 years of war and civil conflict, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. According to the United Nations, the general literacy rate is below 50 percent and only 14 percent of women are literate.