Bosnia's leftover guns: Sell, give, destroy?

The US wants to give the weapons to Afghan forces after previous sales to Iraq went missing.

What's been called the biggest arms transfer since World War II – the shipping of leftover weapons from Bosnia's 1992-1995 war to combat zones in the Middle East and elsewhere – may not have come to an end, despite a year-old moratorium on Bosnian arms sales.

As a UN conference on small arms wrapped up last week, key policymakers reviewed the UN's 2001 action program to end the illegal arms trade, but were unable to come up with a final document or recommendations.

"It is a known fact that in the 1990s, out of 49 major conflicts, 47 were waged with small arms and light weapons – and that most of the conflicts were exacerbated by the availability of illegal small arms," conference head Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka told the press before the conference.

The UN estimates that one-quarter of the $4 billion annual global arms trade is illicit. But experts are also concerned about legal trades, particularly from Bosnia before the moratorium. The concerns are heightened in light of an Amnesty International report in May that detailed a 2004 Bosnia-to-Iraq shipment of thousands of guns that apparently went missing in a maze of subcontractors.

The Bosnian and US governments are discussing gifting a shipment of Bosnia's familiar Soviet-type weapons to Afghanistan. But small arms expertswould like to see Bosnia's weapons destroyed rather than exported, and to end the post-cold war flow of arms from Eastern Europe to conflict zones around the world.

Until the moratorium began last summer, some 290,000 small arms and light weapons and 64 million rounds of ammunition in Bosnia were exported from Bosnia's stockpiles, mostly to Iraq, according to EU peacekeepers.

"Afghan and Iraqi forces have a long history of Soviet-era weapons, and, accordingly, acquisition of these types were selected because of their familiarity, compatibility, and ease of maintenance for the rapid re-establishment of the respective forces," says US Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter. "Consequently, in many instances, we have gone to suppliers in many other nations which have available weaponry that fulfill the requirements."

Amnesty International highlighted one of the US Department of Defense's Bosnia weapons shipments in a May report that detailed a dizzying array of contractors and subcontractors hired to bring some 99 tons of automatic assault rifles from Bosnia to Iraq, to arm the Iraqi military and police.

According to the report, the Department of Defense contracted the Alabama-based company Taos, which then subcontracted a Bulgarian firm, which, in turn, subcontracted the Moldovan-registered company Aerocom to ship the weapons to Iraq in August 2004. But Aerocom lost its air operation certificate one day before the shipments were to begin, because of European Union concerns about air safety and security. According to the Amnesty report, Aerocom was also linked with the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been blacklisted by both the UN and the US Treasury Department for his role in supplying arms to conflict-riddled areas of Africa.

Four flights left the US-controlled Eagle Base in northern Bosnia in August 2004; Amnesty researchers, however, could find no proof of the guns actually arriving in Iraq.

Who has the weapons – US defense contractors, insurgents in Iraq, or warring factions in Africa or elsewhere – remains a mystery. In spite of the report, the Bosnian defense ministry says they are still considering donating weapons now that the sales moratorium has left them two options of getting rid of their surplus. (EU peacekeepers here estimate that the reform-related downsizing this year will create a surplus of about 190,000 weapons.) "The first is destruction, and the second is donations to other countries," says ministry spokesman Antun Mrkonjic. "We're currently in the phase of considering the idea of donating a certain quantity of weapons to the government of Afghanistan, among other places."

The attitude counters that of the UN agency that has helped destroy some 90,000 small arms and light weapons from Bosnia's stockpiles as of late last year. "The international community prefers destroying rather than exporting," says Amna Berbic, small arms and light weapons project manager at the UN Development Program. But another Amnesty report last year highlighted a US-European Union rift on the question of what to do with Bosnia's stockpiles.

Just days after EU peacekeepers took over from the US-led NATO force in late 2004, the Bosnian government cancelled a weapons transfer to Baghdad that had been earlier agreed to with the US NATO commander. The US Embassy in Sarajevo refused requests for interviews. "Weapons procured for [Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH)] for the purpose of supporting Coalition efforts are obtained and transported in accordance with BiH law and the Dayton Accords," the embassy said in a statement.

Even if the transfers are legal, one expert says they're just a permutation of the post-cold war problem of arms flowing out of Eastern Europe to the world's conflict zones. "If this is legal, then those guns, if they are missing, are a classic example of how the legal deal will affect the illegal market," says Rebecca Peters, the director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a global network of some 500-plus NGOs working to stop the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

The former Yugoslavia may have been an end point for arms while wars raged here in the 1990s, but now some of the countries – namely Bosnia and Serbia – are exporting weapons. "It's the classic scenario. It's not unexpected." Ms. Peters says. "It's only a matter of time before it transpires that an American soldier is killed by a weapon that the Americans brought to Afghanistan, or Iraq."

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