AK-47s ‘credit cards’ in Congo

But the government soldiers, militia fighters and bush bandits in eastern Congo all have one thing in common ‘ an AK-47 assault rifle.

“At US$20 to US$50 each, it’s pretty easy to get your hands on an AK out here,” explained a source close to the militia groups in Democratic Republic of Congo’s lawless Ituri district.

“There is no shortage of weapons; there are plenty of them,” the source said. “Of course ammunition is needed, but that comes in from Uganda easily.”

Ituri is a particularly bloody corner of Congo, a mineral-rich but shattered country where four million people have been killed, mostly from war-related hunger and disease, since 1998.

Far removed from central government authority, Ituri has long, porous borders with countries coveting its natural resources and a thinly stretched body of United Nations peacekeepers. The region highlights the challenges of controlling the flow of arms around Africa’s Great Lakes.

Fighting between ethnic militias exploded in Bunia, Ituri’s main town, in 2003, and European soldiers were dispatched to restore order after UN peacekeepers failed to prevent hundreds of civilians from being killed.

As Congo prepares for elections, thousands of militia fighters have signed up for disarmament programmes, in theory swapping guns for school, training and jobs as civilians.

UN peacekeepers ceremonially burned stacks of weapons, while serviceable guns seized off militia were given to the new army. An arms embargo is meant to stop fresh supplies from coming in.

But, frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their new lives, angry at the excesses of poorly paid government soldiers and loath to stop looting civilians and plundering gold mines, many in Ituri have found it easy to take up arms again.

“There are still weapons that are coming in, and this will continue so long as there are people who are willing to pay for them,” said Major Hans-Jakob Reichen, spokesman for the UN forces in eastern Congo.

Ituri is a microcosm of the Congo, where, analysts say, the wealth in gold, timber, diamonds and other minerals needed by expanding Western economies has been plundered by local and foreign armed groups during years of chaos and instability.

And thousands of gunmen continue to roam the lawless east armed with their AK-47s ‘ known to some as the “Congolese credit card” ‘ harassing and killing civilians.

The Rifle

l The rifle, best known from its original AK-47 model (an acronym for Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947) first became operational in the Red Army in 1949, two years after its invention. Easily recognizable from its characteristic banana-shaped magazines, it was the weapon of choice for guerrillas from Vietnam to Venezuela and was favored for its reliability.

l Earlier this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez bought Russian helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles to modernize the country’s military.

l Fourteen countries have produced the AK-47, or variations thereof, under license; others have manufactured copies illegally. Eleven countries are making the rifle without a license, something Russia wants to stop.

l The total number of Kalashnikovs produced since 1947 is likely to lie between 50 million and 80 million.

l Around 78 states, many guerrilla groups and individual fighters use the AK-47. The armies of Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Syria all use the weapon.

The Man

l The rifle’s designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, was born in November 1919 and served as a tank commander in the early stages of the war against Germany in 1941. Wounded in October of that year, Kalashnikov conceived of the idea while in the hospital.

l While Russia is trying to regain control over the brand, Kalashnikov himself long ago gave up on it and sought other ways to cash in on his worldwide notoriety.

l The 86-year-old has lent his name to umbrellas, penknives, watches, golf tees and two different vodkas to make money from his fame. ‘ Reuters.

June 2006
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