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Small Arms Threaten Precarious West African Peace

War-divided Ivory Coast is preparing to enter a disarmament process, the third country in West Africa to do so, following Liberia and Sierra Leone. But a new study on arms says that, despite these efforts, the problem of weapons proliferation in the region shows no signs of ending, signaling the possibility of new conflicts.

A group of about a dozen young former rebels hangs around a storefront near Monrovia's port, one of their strongholds during their 2003 bid to topple Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor.

As they do on most days, arguments here center on money these former fighters say they are owed for turning in their weapons as part of a United Nations-sponsored disarmament program.

One young fighter, who calls himself Trouble, says he deserves the money for participating in what he calls the liberation of Liberia and he runs down a checklist of the tools of his trade.

"I'm supposed to get $1,200 U.S. That's what I'm supposed to receive for the work that I did, my fighting. I used M2s, M16s…[list of arsenal]… Everything, I used it," he said.

The West African sub-region that includes Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Guinea has been wracked by decades of civil wars and armed rebellions. Experts in the region say the fighting is largely fueled by an illicit trade in small arms.

The term small arms includes not only automatic rifles and machine guns, but also small caliber mortars, grenade and rocket launchers, as well as shoulder-fired missiles. These weapons are relatively cheap, highly suitable to West African fighting, and extremely difficult to trace.

Worldwide, it is estimated, these arms claim around 100,000 lives every year.

In Ivory Coast, which is soon set to begin the sub-region's third disarmament process in less than three years, the presence of a vast quantity of small arms is making the job of the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Pierre Schori, that much more difficult.

Ivory Coast is currently under a U.N. embargo on weapons sales. But, Mr. Schori says, enforcing that ban has been problematic.

"A couple of months ago, you had the withdrawal of heavy weapons on both sides," he said. "That is very visible. Small arms you can hide anywhere. Small arms, big problems."

A region-wide moratorium on the importation of small arms, coupled with increased regulation of the industry in eastern European countries, has, to a certain degree, put an end to the massive arms shipments seen in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the mid-1990s.

But a researcher on the subject, Nicolas Florquin, whose organization, Small Arms Survey, has recently published a book on the current situation in the region, says that has not necessarily translated into there being fewer arms.

"Even though there might be less weapons coming in from, let's say former Soviet countries, you have a re-circulation of weapons that are already there that come from state arsenals. Or weapons that have not been recuperated [recovered] after conflict keep on being recycled and reused," he noted.

Fighting in the closely connected civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia has recently ended with disarmament programs. But though more than 100,000 combatants were demobilized in Liberia alone, Mr. Florquin is not convinced such expensive programs are effective.

"In Liberia, the number of weapons that have been collected is estimated at about 60 percent," he added. "However, one can also note that very few of the larger models were recovered during the program. Those are the most deadly weapons, those that have caused the most collateral damage."

And just as fighters in the various wars crossed over borders to fight as mercenaries, Mr. Florquin says there is now a new reason for combatants to hold on to some of their weapons and traffic them across borders. He cites the example of Ivory Coast, which is planning to offer around $900 to each fighter who hands in a weapon.

"Given the recent talks about disarmament in Cote d'Ivoire and the expected, quite high reintegration packages there, there have been reports that weapons have been leaking from Liberia," he explained. "Because the reintegration package is expected to be much higher, so combatants expect to make a profit."

An internal U.N. memo recently leaked to the media, pinned the blame for a June massacre that left more than 40 civilians dead in western Ivory Coast on a group of Liberian fighters. The report said that Ivorian militias had recruited the mercenaries with promises they would be included in the upcoming disarmament, which will pay ex-combatants more than the average Ivorian earns in an entire year.

Mr. Florquin says, without an effort to change the mentality and long-term prospects for these fighters, such a system could do more harm than good.

"I think it is very fair to say that especially if you give $900 for a weapon, that is basically enough money to buy three other weapons," he added. "People could just buy more weapons."

Since the announcement of Ivory Coast's new disarmament program earlier this year, the number of combatants being claimed by both sides has grown rapidly.

But not everyone is pessimistic.

A fighter with Ivory Coast's New Forces rebels, Adam Salgado, mans a checkpoint on the northern edge of a U.N. patrolled buffer zone that divides the country in two. He says he is ready to disarm and go back to normal life.

"We have been killing each other for too long," he said.