Small Arms Race
Authorities and civil society groups agree that guns are more common in Kyrgyzstan, but not on the reasons. by IRIN 8 June 2006
OSH, Kyrgyzstan | The spread of small arms in Kyrgyzstan has become a growing concern for government officials and law enforcement agencies responsible for combating rising crime in the Central Asian state.
"The problem is clear: illegal proliferation of small arms has a tendency to grow. This becomes a threat to public order and results in the growth of criminal incidents and assassinations," said Col. Ravshan Abdukarimov, deputy chief of staff at the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry, in the capital, Bishkek.
According to the ministry, the number of murders and attempted murders rose 17 percent in 2005. Kyrgyzstan ranked 13th out 62 countries surveyed in terms of the numbers of murders per capita, the nationmaster.com information website said.
Recent high-profile killings include the murder of three members of the Kyrgyz parliament in 2005 by unknown assailants deemed to be professional killers. In March of this year, police uncovered three large illegal reserves of weapons and ammunition in southern Kyrgyzstan.
"One cache was hidden at the bottom of a canal in the suburbs of the provincial capital [Osh]," said Zamir Sydykov, a spokesman for the Osh provincial police directorate. "Three factory-made metal boxes with more than 1,300 automatic weapon cartridges had been preserved in very good condition."
Another illegal arsenal, including a rocket-propelled grenade, cartridges for Kalashnikov submachine guns and sniper rifles, as well as a hand grenade fuse, was discovered by the police in the backyard of a private house in the southern town of Uzgen, some 60 kilometers north of Osh, in March.
Bakyt Bekibaev, head of the provincial department of the National Security Service (NSS), said the arms had been seized following a special operation carried out by local police and special forces in Osh and Uzgen.
The security forces searched houses of local young people whom law enforcement bodies suspected of assisting the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), formerly known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The group’s aim is to overthrow secular governments in the region and establish an Islamic state.
The IMU made several armed incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999–2000, taking hostages and clashing with the Kyrgyz security forces.
According to the most recent report on small-arms proliferation by the Interior Ministry, more than 1,200 small arms were seized by law-enforcement agencies in 2005, a 50 percent increase compared with 2004, police analysts explained.
Civil society activists are also concerned that small arms are on the rise in the country. "One can judge the scale of the problem by the fact that a large arsenal of weapons and ammunition was found last autumn in a 'closed,' strictly guarded facility: a high-security prison," said Adiljan Abidov, deputy head of the Civil Initiatives Support Center Public Fund, based in Osh.
“Under current conditions, illegal proliferation, storage and sales of small arms poses a big threat to the region,” said Orozbek Moldaliev, director of the Policy, Religion, and Security Research Center (PRSRC) in Bishkek. An official at the governor’s office who declined to be identified said the problem of small-arms proliferation was fuelled by criminal groups, alleged terrorist organizations, and drug traffickers.
Abdukarimov agreed. "Smuggled arms have become the main weapon in the hands of local criminals and terrorist groups with external connections," he said.
Some analysts pointed to a link between growing illicit drug trafficking and the local proliferation of small arms. Osh is a major transit hub for trafficked Afghan heroin via Tajikistan to Russia and Western Europe. Afghanistan remains the world’s largest supplier of opium.
"Arms trafficking becomes a profitable business among certain circles, along with drug trafficking in Kyrgyzstan. Nowadays, the following combination is common: drugs are exchanged for weapons," Moldaliev of the PRSRC said.
The perception that there are more weapons in circulation means people are choosing to arm themselves in self-defense. Some local NGOs maintained that local businessmen, fearing for their security, had begun acquiring arms.
"There are such people buying guns following cases of looting, violence, and illegal property seizure in the capital after the March events of last year," said Syrymbet Altynov, a businessman-turned-teacher from Bishkek. Following the ouster of former president Askar Akaev's regime on 24 March 2005, many businesses were looted in the capital after police officers abandoned their duties in fear for their safety.
As for the sources of illegal arms, experts primarily cite arms smuggling and “leakages” of weapons from security bodies. Senior police officers, who wished to remain anonymous, said underground terrorist and radical groups procured most of their weapons abroad, via neighboring countries.
Many analysts believe, however, that one of the main sources of illegal small arms is theft from military arsenals due to poor supervision and corruption in inventory control. Such cases were common particularly during the first years of independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Under current conditions, illegal proliferation, storage, and sale of small arms poses a big threat to the region," Moldaliev said. "Urgent measures should be taken, [but] first of all it is necessary to tighten up control."