Scrap from Soviet battle tanks fuel Pakistan’s steel industry

Agence France Presse

Lahore, April 25:

Want to buy the rusted remains of a Russian T-72 tank for $18,000? Then the massive scrap market in Lahore is the place to be. Situated in the heart of Pakistan’s second largest city, the market is essentially a raw material supply source for the countrys expanding steel industry. While the remains of trains, cranes and ships’ anchors also litter the market’s 1,000 warehouses, it is the the scrap from Russian arms in Afghanistan and other former Soviet republics in central Asia that catches the eye. “We are getting regular supplies of these weapon pieces, cut into sheets in Afghanistan,” says Riaz Ahmed, one of the major scrap dealers at the market. Russian-made pieces are his speciality. Weapons captured first by the Afghan mujahideen and later by the Taliban from their Soviet and Northern Alliance enemies are the most popular items at the market because of the quality of their steel. The regular scrap weapon supplies started pouring into Pakistan from 1982 when the war between the western-backed Mujahideen and Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers was at its peak.

Now it is also fuelled by a nationwide disarmament drive over the border in Afghanistan, with scores of warehouses set up on the Afghan side of the frontier. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily armed countries. An estimated eight to 10 million weapons are floating among its battle-scarred militias and the hulking remains of tanks, helicopters and military jets can be seen on countless roadsides. “The trade is absolutely legal as the trucks which carry the weapon scrap have to pay duties and tariffs when they cross over into Pakistan,” says Haris Khan, a major scrap supplier to the warehouses. Khan buys the scrap from Afghan traders at the border and transports it hundreds of miles to Lahore. Apart from Afghanistan itself, the bordering former Soviet republics of Tajikstan and Turkemanistan are also major sources of the trade.

“Not only tanks and artillery pieces, our stocks include empty mortar shells, and used up tank ammunition,” says Khan. “Maybe they are doing away with their old Russian arsenal,” says Mohammad Hafeez, another scrap dealer at the market. The weapon scrap is sold at the rate of around 45 cents per kg. With a broken up tank weighing more than 40 tonnes and artillery pieces coming in at between 400 and 1,200 kg, they can fetch thousands of dollars each. It then feeds the steel furnaces and boilers in several Pakistani factories. The boom in the steel industry is part of Pakistan’s overall economic growth which is expected to touch seven per cent during the current fiscal year. Pakistan has around 85 steel manufacturing units spread all over the country, with around 45 in Punjab which are fed by the Lahore scrap market. The country as a whole produced more than four million tonnes of steel last year, with the demand for this year standing at 4.7 million tonnes. Nor is the Lahore market the only place in Pakistan where Soviet arms are on sale. Afghan commanders have been known to buy up cheap Kalashnikovs in the area, smuggling them back over the porous frontier, and handing them in to officials in return for compensation, according to Pakistani arms dealers. The United Nations-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) campaign aims to disarm and demobilise 40,000 irregular Afghan fighters, most of them loyal to warlords, before elections slated for Afghanistan’s autumn. Meanwhile the business of transforming wrecked Russian armaments into a key ingredient of Pakistan’s economic boom remains huge. Trader Hafeez says that there are no accurate estimates but on average every warehouse buys or sells four to five trucks of scrap a day, worth tens of thousands of dollars.