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World: Illicit Ammunition Trade Fuels Conflicts

This ammunition was seized in Afghanistan in March (epa) From Africa to Iraq to Afghanistan, the illicit ammunition trade is fueling conflicts around the world, according to a new report by Oxfam. The British-based development organization blames the proliferation of bullets in the world’s poorest countries on lax international regulations and controls.

PRAGUE, June 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The illicit trade in ammunition and bullets is claiming thousands of lives around the world every year.

In a report released today, British development organization Oxfam is urging the international community to agree to tougher rules on the ammunition trade. The report, "Ammunition: The Fuel Of Conflict," comes ahead of a UN conference on the small-arms trade, which begins in New York on June 26.

33 Million Bullets A Day

“Enormous amounts of bullets are produced every day," Oxfam’s conflict manager, Anna MacDonald, tells RFE/RL. "Globally, 33 million bullets are produced every day around the world. And what we’re saying is there need to be stronger controls on the sale and transfer of these bullets to ensure that they don’t find their way into the wrong hands, and thus ensure a worsening in conflict zones and more lives being lost in some of the world’s poorest countries.”

Oxfam's report outlines how illicit ammunition has flooded war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in the last five years.

It said companies in at least 76 countries manufacture ammunition, and the number is growing. Kenya and Turkey have both become producers in the last 10 years. Among the top producers, the report lists Romania, Russia, China, Egypt, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Israel.

MacDonald says a new control regime would go a long way toward reducing the amount of ammunition flowing around the world.

No Uniform Regulatory System

“At the moment what we have [are] different levels of national controls that vary enormously between countries and between regions," MacDonald says. "So an unscrupulous government or an unscrupulous arms dealer or bullet dealer can easily find their way around the legislation. And that’s how so much ammunition is ending up in places that are actually embargoed to receive ammunition at the moment. Because people are finding it very easy to find their way around lax controls that are currently in place.”

While no system of regulation can totally prevent smuggling, MacDonald is convinced that it would drastically reduce it and save many lives.

When The Guns Fell Silent

In Liberia, thousands have been killed in a civil war that only recently has begun to subside. MacDonald says that in the summer of 2003, fighting actually had to stop for several days because ammunition supplies had run dry. That mean, for a brief moment, lives were not being lost.

A Pakistani soldier secures the site of fighting along the border with Afghanistan in March (epa)

“Unfortunately, new supplies did arrive and they began attacking again, and the conflict escalated," she says. "But it did show quite starkly -- in that window that appeared in the summer when there was a lack of ammunition -- that [ammunition] was actually fueling the conflict, and that without it, the conflict was decreasing.”

And in researching the Baghdad black market in May, Oxfam says it found that new, high-quality ammunition was widely available in the Iraqi capital. That contrasts to mainly old Iraqi stocks that existed just after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

“There’s two likely explanations," MacDonald says. "Either it’s been smuggled in from neighboring countries, or it’s leaked out from existing coalition or Iraqi forces’ supplies. Either way, that means that weak controls have meant that bullets have ended up in the hands of those who’ve used them to increase the number of lives that are being lost.”

Stockpiles In Eastern Europe

In compiling details of the old ammunition stockpiles in Eastern Europe, Oxfam found that Ukraine alone is estimated to have about 2.5 million tons of such stocks, including several hundred million rounds of small-arms ammunition.

Unscrupulous brokers will be eager to get their hands on these bullets and sell them to war zones. Profit margins for such sales can be over 500 percent.

MacDonald concludes that tough international rules could help stop the "merchants of death" -- and save thousands of lives.