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Pakistan: Illegal Arms Threaten Peace Across Troubled NWFP

Integrated Regional Information Networks, United Nations, September 26, 2007

A large array of guns and arms can be purchased in Darra Adam Khel, 40 kilometers south of Peshawar. (Photo: Tahira Sarwar / IRIN)

In the small town of Bannu, some 190 kilometers south of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's rugged North-West Frontier Province, an unusual sound sometimes rents the air.

"The whiz and hiss of a missile being set off is both thrilling and terrifying," Mobeen Khan, a 40-year-old bus driver who regularly plies the dusty route between Peshawar and Bannu, told IRIN. "At first, we were unfamiliar with the sound. Now we are getting used to it."

Arms, including sophisticated weapons such as missiles, rockets, and automatic machine guns, were proliferating rapidly in Bannu, he said, mainly due to fighting between pro-Taliban extremists and government forces taking place in the North and South Waziristan Agency—tribal areas located along the North-West Frontier Province's loosely demarcated border with neighboring Afghanistan.

The fact that Waziristan is a tribal territory, lying outside Islamabad's writ and beyond the ambit of Pakistani laws, has complicated the situation further.

It has made the violence impossible to stop, despite government efforts to strike deals with the militants or to suppress them through armed action.

Since a Pakistani government peace deal with militants broke down and the army stormed a radical mosque to quell a Taliban-style movement in the capital, Islamabad, in July, the exact number of casualties in the area remains unknown.

However, in 2004, in the last official disclosure of casualty figures provided, Peshawar corps commander Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain said 171 soldiers had been killed, while the death toll of the militants was put at 246, including 100 foreigners.

But independent analysts have long questioned this. Agence France-Presse estimated earlier this year that at least 700 soldiers and 1,000 militants had been killed, while Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir, a former military officer, had written that casualties in the Waziristan conflict were "high, perhaps unsustainable," but added: "We'll never know the exact figures."

The scale of the warfare can, however, be gauged from the fact that when hostilities resumed in early 2007, after a short-lived ceasefire, pro-government tribesmen were reported in March to have recovered 18,000 hand grenades, 175 rocket-propelled grenades, 188 Kalashnikovs, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, allegedly from a private jail run by Uzbek militants based in the area.

Displacement

The impact arms proliferation is having on local communities is particularly worrying, say analysts.

Over the past three years, the conflict has created civilian displacement, but given the lack of access to Waziristan being granted by the military to either the media or human rights monitors, the precise numbers are unknown.

However, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (I.M.D.C.) stated in a report in June 2005 at least 50,000 persons had been displaced in Waziristan.

The government-appointed administrator of South Waziristan, Hussainzada Khan, however, told IRIN from the regional headquarters, Wana: "Most people have since moved back, or went away temporarily." Yet, he agreed, "Some families left permanently because of the fighting."

Local people in Bannu, less than an hour's drive from the town of Miranshah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan, say "hundreds" of people have moved there from Waziristan over the past few years.

The violence in Waziristan is only one complication caused by the widespread availability of arms across the North-West Frontier Province.

Baluchistan

Some of these arms have found their way into Baluchistan, Pakistan's southwestern province, where conflict broke out between antigovernment tribesmen seeking greater autonomy and government forces in several areas in 2005.

It has since simmered on, though on a lower scale than in the previous two years, and, according to the I.M.D.C., also resulted in large-scale displacements.

At the same time, the arms have found their way to other parts of Pakistan, a country estimated to have over 20 million small arms, over half of them illegally owned.

North-West Frontier Province Awash With Arms

The largest number of weapons, both small arms and more lethal weapons, which include even antiaircraft guns, are reported by police to be located within the North-West Frontier Province.

Such easy availability of weapons of every size, shape, and description is said to have contributed to a rising rate of crime.

According to the police, North-West Frontier Province recorded 3,748 cases of crime involving firearms in 2005, 3,996 in 2006, and 2,700 in the first seven months of 2007 alone.

The violence the presence of such weapons can lead to has also been apparent in a series of attacks seen in recent months. In July 2007 alone, over 200 people, including 85 security personnel, were reportedly killed in attacks by militants, many conducted by suicide bombers.

Tribal or sectarian conflicts in parts of the North-West Frontier Province, such as the remote Tirah Valley, are also reported regularly—and have over the past few years claimed dozens of lives.

Local Gun Culture

The now deeply rooted gun culture in Pakistan, where even festive occasions such as weddings are frequently celebrated by unleashing volleys from automatic weapons into the air, began in earnest following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the fighting it triggered with weapons pouring into the area.

Today it is kept alive by local expertise. The heart of this expertise lies in the tiny, barren town of Darra Adam Khel, nestled amidst sandstone hills some 40 kilometers south of Peshawar.

Along the one street that runs through the town, almost every shop sells guns. The weapons, painstakingly crafted replicas of weapons made across the world, including Kalashnikovs, M-16 rifles, and antiaircraft guns, are honed in tiny workshops located off the main road.

Here, a large proportion of the town's population is involved in arms manufacture, following a tradition that began over 100 years ago. Some 400-700 guns are churned out in Darra daily and buyers who visit from across the country test them out at the shops from where the crackle of gunfire rings out at regular intervals.

While other markets for arms exist across Pakistan, most are located in North-West Frontier Province. A drive to clamp down on illegal weapons, initiated some 10 years ago by the authorities, has had only limited impact—and the free availability of weapons is a key factor in the periodic outbreaks of violence that wreck peace across the North-West Frontier Province, affecting tens of thousands of people, observers say. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.

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