Sun, Aug 12, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Kalashnikovs rule in Ivory Coast arms hub

VIOLENT LEGACY:When elections in 2010 sparked a crisis in the West African nation, many Ivorians picked up weapons to fight for the president and have yet to let them go

AFP, ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

A member of an arms trafficking and arms rental network on July 24 holds a Kalashnikov assault weapon in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Photo: AFP

Keen to hire a Kalashnikov for the day? In a dangerous legacy of years of conflict, the Ivory Coast’s economic capital is now the hub of a thriving trade in automatic weapons for the criminal underworld.

“The ‘Kalash’ rules the streets in Abidjan,” said a police officer who is part of a task force charged with fighting gangland crime.

Criminals bent on a heist can rent an assault rifle for US$37.

In one working-class district, a dealer who calls himself Commander Tasman, or “fire” in the Malinke language, runs a veritable clandestine armory out back of his store. The beefy trader in dark glasses proudly showed off a “Kalash” and announced his rates.

If 20,000 CFA francs (US$37) is the going rate for renting an assault rifle, an automatic pistol can be had for US$30 a day. A Kalashnikov costs between US$282 and US$368 to buy. Tasman said that he can even provide rocket launchers, for 500,000 CFA francs each.

The arms dealer was among those who fought for Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara during the crisis that lasted between December 2010 and April last year, which flared up when outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge defeat in an election.

This epilogue to a decade of political turmoil and armed confrontation in the West African country ended with 10 days of street warfare in Abidjan that claimed about 3,000 lives.

It also led to an unprecedented proliferation of weapons of all kinds, in violation of a 2004 arms embargo decreed by the UN.

Tens of thousands of guns are believed still to be in circulation, in the absence of any official figures.

While Abidjan is a much safer place than it was during the crisis, the number of weapons at large worries the authorities but is seen as a boon by gangs of highwaymen, who are particularly active in the north of the country.

Three raids by unidentified gunmen on a police station, an army post and a military base in Abidjan on Sunday last week and on Monday left at least 11 soldiers dead and as many wounded.

A national commission set up in 2009 to fight the proliferation of light and small caliber weapons, COMNAT, has tried to have former fighters voluntarily hand in their guns, with the backing of the UN Operation in Ivory Coast (ONUCI).

“The country doesn’t need this any more, we are emerging from the crisis. What everybody should work for now is the rebuilding of the country,” General Desire Adjoussou said last month at a ceremony to destroy collected weapons in Abidjan.

However, barely more than 2,000 weapons had been collected up until then and stored by ONUCI.

“We took up arms during the battle of Abidjan, but very few people turned them in,” said “Jagger,” a former pro-Gbagbo militiaman turned butcher.

“My weapon is a souvenir,” he said from behind his stall.

Another former militiaman, who has become a security guard in an upmarket district, decided to bury the Kalashnikovs he and his companions used in the fighting in a patch of wasteland. He was reluctant to turn them in for fear of being identified and punished by the army.

Adama, who fought for Ouattara, argued that the state of the country has become too uncertain to get rid of his “machine.”

“People talk more and more of a possible comeback by Gbagbo and [the crisis] could start again,” he said.

A hearing to confirm the charges of crimes against humanity hanging over the ousted president, currently detained by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, was set to begin tomorrow, but has been postponed pending a medical evaluation.

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