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Serbia Tries To Scrap Its Gun Habit

More than 17,000 illegal weapons -- seized or voluntarily handed over -- were turned into scrap at a Belgrade metal recycling center on December 20.

More than 17,000 illegal weapons -- seized or voluntarily handed over -- were turned into scrap at a Belgrade metal recycling center on December 20.

Belgrade and its international partners are hailing a decade of achievement in a long-running effort to rid Serbia of the postwar legacy of rampant gun possession.

News of the reductions comes with most eyes fixed on a raging gun-control debate in the United States following the horrific killings in Newtown, Connecticut.

But Serbia had one of the world's highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world -- right behind the United States -- after the former Yugoslavia's bloody wars of independence in the 1990s, and gun ownership was still alarmingly high early last decade.

So officials regard progress there to reduce the number of weapons in private hands as a good and stabilizing thing.

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic was joined by EU and other international officials on December 20 for the ceremonial destruction of some of the 17,000 rifles and handguns seized or otherwise collected most recently under a joint program with the United Nations and European Union.

The latest chapter is the "Arms Control Activities in the Western Balkans" project, backed by the United Nations Development Program and the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), which has EU and other government support.

The destructions increased to nearly 110,000 the number of weapons eliminated in Serbia alone since the start of the small arms and light weapons (SALW) program in 2003.

More than 280,000 such weapons have been destroyed across the western Balkans since 2002, according to SEESAC.

SEESAC works under a UN mandate "to strengthen the capacities of national and regional stakeholders to control and reduce the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons, and thus contribute to enhanced stability, security, and development" in the region, according to its website.

SEESAC describes it as "the last of the SEESAC activities" under current funding and adds that this week's event "concludes the planed [sic] destruction activities in Serbia."

But RFE/RL's Balkan Service quotes Interior Minister Dacic as saying that Serbian authorities are planning another roundup of illegally owned weapons as part of a "legalization" effort to get more of them onto the books.

Illegally possessed weapons frequently play a role in murders and robberies, SEESAC says, as well as in domestic violence.

"It's a contribution to the overall security of our country and the region," Dacic says of the past decade of gun roundups, adding an invitation for more Serbs to "get rid of their weapons."

It's also a region where state frontiers are frequently of very recent vintage, and SEESAC team leader Ivan Zverzhanovski echoed Dacic's call, stressing the fact that such weapons "can easily cross borders."

There are some 1.2 million registered weapons in Serbia, and authorities suggest that there could be another 500,000 to 1.5 million unregistered small and light weapons in the country -- placing it above even Switzerland on a per capita basis.

Some 15 percent of Serbia's citizens legally own firearms, 1,700 of whom have a permit to carry concealed weapons.

Beyond the wartime bloodshed, the memory is still fresh in most Serbian minds of the assassination in 2003 by a sniper's bullet of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

-- RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Zoran Glavonjic and Andy Heil

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