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Africa's Conflict Zones Awash With Weapons

Many hot spots in sub-Saharan Africa are awash with light weapons in the hands of unemployed, dispossessed youths, making the continent a perpetual tinderbox. Experts agree the often-ignored problem of small arms is getting bigger and harder to stop, while criminal networks and corrupt authorities are profiting.

What used to be a kindergarten playground in the southern commercial capital Abidjan is now the training zone for dozens of pro-government militias in their late teens and early 20s. Their five leaders are armed with Uzi submachine guns.

During recent anti-French protests, there were clashes between French peacekeepers, the Ivorian army and these militias. It was not always clear where the shooting came from.

While long-time foreign residents were evacuated, many of them left behind their own personal weapons which are now being sold in back alleys of Abidjan.

In the government-held west, so-called patriotic liberation forces have replaced the army near front lines. Carrying AK-47s, rifles and pistols, they run through the streets of the main western city of Guiglo, in a show of force.

In the rebel-held north, armed youths, some clearly under 18, man roadblocks every kilometer or so.

The head of the West African human rights group RADDHO, Alioune Tine, says the weapons these children use are cheap and easy to find.

"We can sell and buy light weapons like a bread, you can sell it and buy it like a bread," he said. "The weapons come from Europe, Ukraine, we have many Ukrainian weapons, the weapons from the former Soviet Union are here, from China, etcetera. It is a great profit for them and it is a profit for the warlords."

Light arms researcher Peter Danssaert says warlords work closely with criminal business networks which thrive in unstable and lawless situations.

"You also have military figures, you have politicians, private entrepreneurs," he said. "These networks are active in the commodity sectors, the basic commodities but also in natural resources. It's more profitable for them because war creates a power vacuum or you could also say that the power vacuum created the war I don't know. But the fact is that it makes it more profitable for certain individuals."

The weapons arrive by boat and planes across porous borders, the same boats and planes which sometimes carry the natural resources out. Eastern Congo, the continent's most volatile region, has over 100 airfields and landing strips, mainly for smuggling.

Despite an arms embargo, Mr. Danssaert say arms and ammunitions have continued to arrive from eastern Europe as well as from companies in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Experts agree embargoes and moratoriums usually fail, because they aren't respected and they aren't enforced.

British-based expert Alex Vines says some of the United Nations disarmament programs don't work either, as was the case recently for Liberia, where it conflicted with a failed program in Ivory Coast.

"The incentive structure in Cote d'Ivoire for buy-back for paying for weapons handed in was much higher," he said. "It was about $900 versus a much smaller figure per weapon being offered in Liberia. This has meant also it's been an incentive for guns to leave Liberia to the Ivory Coast, Cote d'Ivoire. Only by dealing with these issues at a regional level I think can you really deal with the issue of illicit weapons."

Mr. Vines says he also has worrisome information that arms are currently flooding into the separatist Senegalese region of Casamance, as well as into Nigeria's oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta region.

A report this month by the African Union said "astronomical amounts" of ammunition and light weapons were reaching warring sides in Sudan's Darfur region.

Massive inflows are also being reported in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, three coup-prone countries, as well as Niger and Mali, where there is rampant banditry in desert areas.

The arms division director for New-York based Human Rights Watch, Steve Goose, says the problem is bad enough now that it should be dealt with much more aggressively on an international level.

"These weapons have had a huge impact, a huge negative impact, on the people, their rights and their way of living," he said. "Does it get enough attention? The answer is certainly no. You have a lot of governments who only want to focus on weapons of mass destruction when it fact it has been light weapons and small arms that have killed more people, that have had a larger societal economic impact even than the weapons of mass destruction."

Mr. Goose says the United Nations has been in his words "fitfully" trying to establish a program of action on light weapons and small arms since 2001, but he says there are no positive results he can see so far.

In Africa, more and more young paid-for-hire soldiers, rebels and militias seem to be wrecking their own future with every round they fire.