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Yemen, awash in guns, wary about unrest

Yemen has the highest guns-per-capita ratio in the world after the US. Tribesmen – some of whom have camped out in Sanaa's Tahrir Square – are widely said to have grenades, mortars, and even a rare tank.

By Laura KasinofCorrespondent / February 18, 2011

Yemeni demonstrators demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Sanaa, Yemen

As Yemeni protests escalate, tribesmen from rural parts of the country have come to Yemen's own Tahrir Square. But despite sharing the same name as the epicenter of Egypt's revolution, this central square in Sanaa has yet to attract throngs of antigovernment protesters – perhaps in no small part because the tribesmen occupying it are armed.

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They're not the only ones carrying guns, however. In Yemen, which has one of the highest guns-per-capita ratios in the world and a weak central government, the Kalashnikov has become emblematic of masculinity, the size of one’s weapon cache synonymous with power.

“Shame on a man who leaves his house without his gun,” says Sinan Abo Zeid, a native of Yemen's northern border province Al Jawf, where men are known to pay for their cars’ gasoline in bullets whenever they don’t have enough cash. “In Al Jawf, the Kalashnikov is the government.”

As Yemen has become more volatile – a state headed toward failure, where it's unclear who would fill the power vacuum that could follow – the number of weapons slung across men's shoulders and stashed in tribal outposts is increasingly seen as problematic.

“There are dangerous risks that these weapons will get into the hands of the wrong people," says Sultan al-Atwany, a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Nasserite party. "This is a big security risk in Yemen."

Grenades, mortars, and an odd tank

Due to a history of internal conflicts and international meddling, Yemen has 60 guns per 100 people – second only to the United States, according to a report conducted in 2007 by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research project.

Traditionally, tribal law regulated weapons use in this country. However, as a result of the gradual erosion of tribal norms due to urbanization, Yemen’s weak central government, and competition over resource depletion, gun-related violence is increasing. Revenge killings, kidnappings, and politically inspired fighting – including the terrorist operations of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – plague Yemeni society.

Moreover, Yemen’s population is armed with weapons more powerful than guns. Tribes are widely said to have supplies of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and in some rare cases, tanks.

'Using my gun to take my rights'

Revelations from WikiLeaks’ released diplomatic cables highlight US concern about widespread weapons proliferation in a country where a regional branch of Al Qaeda has set up shop.

Starting in 2004, according to a cable, the US worked with the Yemeni government to buy back surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS, in an attempt to remove them from the Yemeni arms market so that terrorists would not obtain the missiles. Other cables reveal US concern over weapons being smuggled out of Yemen to other terrorist organizations around the globe.

Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for security and defense affairs, claimed that arms proliferation is one of four security challenges facing Yemen, says a report published by the Small Arms Survey in May 2010. Others include terrorist threats, border protection, and “weak loyalty to the state.”

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