Balkan countries have agreed on the need to strengthen the collection of illegal weapons and have come out in support of the establishment of a new "clearinghouse" to destroy those weapons. The United Nations Development Program estimates 1 million illegal small weapons are circulating in the region.
Tirana, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For the past century, the Balkans have been known as "Europe's powder keg." And the five wars (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia) fought on the territory over the past 11 years, as well as the anarchy that gripped Albania in 1991-92 and 1997, have done nothing to diminish that reputation.
A new struggle is now under way in the region. Local governments -- led by the United Nations -- have agreed on a joint effort to improve the collection and destruction of the huge quantity of illegally held small weapons.
The head of the United Nations Development Program mission in Tirana, Ana Stjarnerklint, says: "There has been quite a lot of progress toward a weapons-free region, and Albania has been a leader in the collection and destruction of small arms. One hundred and fifty thousand weapons have been collected, 116,000 of these have been destroyed, and 100,000 to 150,000 have been taken [smuggled] out of the country. And this leaves about 250,000 still in circulation. And this is a dangerously high level."
Skender Gjinushi, the deputy prime minister of Albania, where some 500,000 light weapons were looted during the civil unrest of 1997, says the government is ready to take full control of the monitoring of weapons trafficking, while a law that grants amnesty for those who surrender looted weapons expires in August. "We feel Albania is now prepared to enter the final phase of full control of weapons and ammunition."
Croatia has one the highest numbers of firearms per capita, with 19 percent of households possessing firearms. Some 100,000 light weapons were confiscated by police during the two-year, post-war amnesty dedicated to the handing over of weapons held by the population.
Alfred Moisiu, the president of the Albanian North Atlantic Treaty Association, says: "To provide weapons and ammunitions in the Balkans nowadays is the easiest thing. It does not require any sophisticated organization. One can find them everywhere -- in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia. But even in calm states like Bulgaria and Romania, it is not so difficult to find such means. Smuggling, illicit traffic, and corruption have to be stopped."
The U.S. ambassador to Albania, Joseph Limprecht, says effective border controls are the key to preventing weapons proliferation in the region. "I would like to urge close cooperation between Macedonia and Albania, an area in which, in addition to this kind of cooperation, the international community also has the responsibility to provide assistance. NATO has made recommendations for border-post liaison officers and joint border patrols between Albania and Macedonia, and we will be talking to Albanian officials, to Albanian leaders, to urge their taking this up. And we hope that both countries will be favorable to this."
Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia have all expressed full support for the opening of a weapons-destruction center in Belgrade next month.
A regional clearinghouse in Mjekes, Albania, was used for the destruction of 1.6 million land mines and explosives over a recent eight-month period. The head of NATO's delegation at the Albanian Defense Ministry says a similar project for destroying land mines from other countries in the region is being planned in Albania.