Balkan weapons : Have they gone to Iraq and Afghanistan?

Weapons from the Balkans wars of the 1990s are beginning to arm conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, well-placed officials have revealed. A vital element of the Dayton Peace Agreements that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 was the destruction of huge caches of heavy weapons, artillery, small arms and ammunition.

The 39,000-strong Stabilisation Forces led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) until December 2004, followed by the 6,300 European Union Forces (EUFOR) sought to re-establish peace and ensure security. And this meant destruction of remaining weapons.

But these weapons have headed in other directions. Bosnian daily newspaper Nezavisne Novine and Croatian daily Vecernji List have quoted a former Austrian member of EUFOR, identified as “Major Erwin K” as saying that under the United States pressure, stockpiled arms and ammunition were ordered and sold to Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

At least 290,000 rifles were sold to private firms, mostly based in the United States. The guns were finally meant to be supplied to “local security forces” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military source was quoted as saying.

It is important to note here that IPS calls to request official information on this went unanswered.

But Jasenko Maglajlija, head of the Sarajevo-based state-owned arms trading company Unis-Promex, has confirmed that the company had dealings with the US company Scout.

“We did do something for Scout, but it is not a problem, because it was all approved by the state,” Maglajlija told the newspaper Vecernji List. “Where the weapons went, I don’t know, you should ask someone else. Maybe they were sold to Iraq, or Afghanistan, I cannot confirm that.” He said the media were “creating unnecessary fuss” around the issue.

These are not the first warnings of such diversion of weaponry. An Amnesty International report ‘Death on Time’ published last year devotes 40 pages to human rights concerns arising from illegal transfer of weapons.

“Hundreds of thousands of small arms and light weapons from the Bosnia and Herzegovina’s war-time stockpiles together with tens of millions of rounds of ammunition were reportedly shipped — clandestinely and without public oversight — to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the US Department of Defence (DoD) between July 31, 2004 and June 31, 2005,” the Amnesty International report said, citing EUFOR sources.

Amnesty International warned of abuse of human rights by those accessing these weapons. It named several companies involved in the operation. The Amnesty report said the weapons were also shipped to Rwanda in December 2004. This was despite the United Nations’ warnings that Rwanda was aiding armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bosnia-Herzegovina struggled to recover from its wounds after three years of bloody conflict. The deadly war ended in 1995. The land was torn between Muslims of Slav origin, Serbs and Croats. More than 100,000 died in the fighting.

The weapons that remained have been as hard to remove as memories of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict and the residual hatred between many of the differing groups.

“According to our survey, an incredible number of 1,000 deaths per year happen through the abuse and mishandling of small arms and weapons in Bosnia,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country representative Stefan Priesner told local media.

The UNDP says about 20 per cent of the civilian population in Bosnia possesses weapons, most of them illegally. The number is put at close to 500,000 in a country of some 3.8 million.

UNDP organised an unusual lottery last November, offering motor scooters and kitchen appliances to individuals who handed over weapons kept illegally. The lottery followed the ‘Harvest’ move by EUFOR earlier to collect illegal stockpiles of weapons and ammunition.

In a matter of months, more than 30,000 hand grenades, 9,000 small weapons and 200 kilos of explosives were collected in the operations last year. “Together with 500,000 rounds of ammunition this was enough to arm a brigade,” Julio Garcia from EUFOR commented at the time.

Since 1998, peacekeepers have collected about 52,000 small arms, 38,500 land mines, more than 225,000 hand grenades, about 15.5 million rounds of ammunition, 33 tonnes of explosives, and even a couple of tanks, according to official information.

But the United Nations Development Programme and local authorities believe there are vast quantities of weapons and another 350,000 tonnes of ammunition in Bosnia that would take more than 20 years to remove — or to add to clandestine shopping lists. — IPS