Balkan weapons traf­ficked west still a ‘ma­jor prob­lem’ Mi­cro-traf­fick­ing at its best

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEL­GRADE: A year after ji­hadists used weapons man­u­fac­tured in Ser­bia to gun down vic­tims in Paris, Balkan coun­tries are strug­gling to end the scourge of il­le­gal arms traf­fick­ing. The killers who opened fire at the Bat­a­clan theatre, cafes and restau­rants in the French cap­i­tal last Novem­ber used Yu­goslav-era as­sault ri­fles pro­duced by Ser­bia’s Zas­tava Arms.

Months ear­lier the Kouachi brothers, be­hind the deadly as­sault on the Char­lie Hebdo mag­a­zine of­fices, car­ried a rocket launcher from the Balkans, a re­gion lit­tered with weapons since the wars of the 1990s. Ac­cord­ing to a top French mag­is­trate, Robert Gelli, Ser­bian ci­ti­zens come up in nearly a third of in­ter­na­tional arms traf­fick­ing probes car­ried out in France. “The weapons get­ting through to west­ern Europe and the ef­fects they have is still a ma­jor prob­lem,” said Ivan Zverzhanovski, who leads a UN Devel­op­ment Pro­gram project in the Balkans to help com­bat il­le­gal arms traf­fick­ing. The in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tor­ing project Small Arms Sur­vey said in late 2014 that an es­ti­mated 3.6 mil­lion to 6.2 mil­lion firearms were in the hands of civil­ians in the West­ern Balkans, a re­gion home to less than 25 mil­lion peo­ple.

In Ser­bia alone there are be­tween 200,000 and 900,000 un­reg­is­tered weapons, ac­cord­ing to au­thor­i­ties, de­spite var­i­ous amnesty cam­paigns launched since the as­sas­si­na­tion of re­formist prime min­is­ter Zo­ran Djind­jic in 2003. yes­ter­day, the in­te­rior min­istry an­nounced its big­gest weapons haul in at least 16 years, which led to the ar­rests of 10 peo­ple. Po­lice in Ser­bia’s north­west seized arms in­clud­ing 111 hand grenades, 12 anti-tank grenades, two rocket launch­ers, 10 ri­fle grenades, 10 au­to­matic or semi-au­to­matic ri­fles, six pis­tols, 6,000 bul­lets and dozens of ki­los of ex­plo­sives.

In neigh­bor­ing Bos­nia, “it is a fact that... there are weapons that are not un­der con­trol and traf­fick­ers buy these weapons,” Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter Dra­gan Mek­tic told news por­tal Klix.ba re­cently, stress­ing that the prob­lem ex­isted across the re­gion.

Mi­cro-traf­fick­ing

Zverzhanovski told AFP that, based on in­for­ma­tion from law en­force­ment agen­cies, a gun bought for 250 to 500 Eu­ros on the Balkan black mar­ket could sell for 3,000 to 5,000 Eu­ros in a coun­try such as Swe­den.

The weapons are rarely trans­ported by the truck-load but a few at a time, in pri­vate cars or the count­less buses that link the Balkans with west­ern Europe. Some are sent in pieces to be re­assem­bled later and some are even sent by post, ex­perts say. Smug­gling on this mi­cro-scale makes the prob­lem dif­fi­cult to tackle. “Un­til now, no se­ri­ous groups of arms traf­fick­ers have been dis­man­tled in Bos­nia,” said Jas­min Ahic, an an­a­lyst from Sara­jevo’s fac­ulty of crim­i­nol­ogy.

The arms have their roots in com­mu­nist Yu­goslavia, where large stock­piles were kept across the fed­er­a­tion for use by civil­ianstaffed “ter­ri­to­rial de­fense” units, de­signed to de­fend against a sur­prise for­eign at­tack.

They ended up de­ployed in in­ter-eth­nic civil war as the fed­er­a­tion col­lapsed, while more weapons were smug­gled into the re­gion to build up ar­mies in the face of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions.

‘Turn­ing point’

Such arms went un­tracked in the chaos of con­flict un­til resur­fac­ing again on the streets of Aachen, Stockholm or Paris, where 130 peo­ple were killed in the at­tacks on Novem­ber 13, 2015. “The Paris at­tacks were a turn­ing point on many lev­els,” said Zverzhanovski, re­fer­ring to grow­ing co­op­er­a­tion within the EU and be­tween Balkan law en­force­ment agen­cies.

Ser­bian and French of­fi­cials signed an ac­cord in Oc­to­ber to form joint teams to in­ves­ti­gate arms smug­gling, and Bel­grade’s pros­e­cu­tor for or­ga­nized crime Mladen Ne­nadic said “de­ter­mi­na­tion and clar­ity” were needed to tackle the prob­lem.

In April, 5,000 po­lice of­fi­cers were mo­bi­lized in all for­mer Yu­goslav re­publics in a 48-hour In­ter­pol-led op­er­a­tion-but it re­sulted in the seizure of just 40 firearms and six ki­los of ex­plo­sives, along with 22 ar­rests, ac­cord­ing to Bos­nian po­lice.

Ac­cord­ing to Zverzhanovski, ef­forts are “still rel­a­tively ad hoc, case-based,” and the EU needs to help to build the ca­pac­ity of Balkan po­lice forces, along with ply­ing po­lit­i­cal pres­sure on the re­gion to deal with il­le­gal pos­ses­sion. “This is the mo­ment to tackle it, be­fore these coun­tries come into the EU,” he said, not­ing that Croa­tia’s ef­forts on firearms dropped off sig­nif­i­cantly once it joined the bloc.

APATIN, SER­BIA: This hand­out photo pro­vided by Ser­bian Min­istry of In­te­rior af­fairs shows weapons, ex­plo­sives and am­mu­ni­tion seized dur­ing an po­lice ac­tion near the north-west­ern Ser­bian town of Apatin on Novem­ber 15, 2016.

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