Africa's crises means arms trade thrives

Oct. 11, 2010 at 1:34 PM
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PRETORIA, South Africa, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Viktor Bout, a Russian who allegedly sold vast amounts of weapons that fueled Africa's countless wars over the last two decades, is awaiting extradition from Thailand to the United States on terrorism-related charges.

His arrest in a U.S. sting operation in March 2008 for plotting to sell 700 anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to Colombian rebels may have ended his long career as the most prolific merchant of death in Africa but it hasn't stopped that deadly trade.

On Sept. 30, U.S. federal prosecutors said the defense minister of the troubled West African state of Ivory Coast, Michal Amani N'Guessan, was involved in a plot to smuggle weapons from the United States in defiance of a U.N. arms embargo.

The minister was luckier than Bout. He and others implicated in the $3.8 million plot have diplomatic immunity to shield them from prosecution.

But his front man, Col. Yao N'Guessan, who brokered the deal in the United States for 4,000 9mm Glock handguns, 200,000 rounds of ammunition and 50,000 tear gas grenades, was indicated Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif.

N'Guessan and other government officials in the Ivory Coast, a former French colony, had made little effort to hide their involvement. They claim the country's security forces, supposedly outnumbered and outgunned by the opposition, need the weapons to ensure that presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 31 are conducted peacefully.

Ivory Coast was torn by civil war from 2002 until May 2007 when U.N. peacekeepers were deployed. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo after the government broke a peace agreement in 2004.

The election is the first presidential poll in more than five years in the violence-plagued nation.

The crisis in the Ivory Coast, a major cocoa producer, is only one of a score of conflicts simmering or in progress across Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, which has some of the world's richest mineral deposits, has been gripped by a 15-year war that involves half a dozen states.

Uganda has been plagued by a brutal rebellion by the Lord's Resistance Army for two decades.

Angola and Sudan were ravaged by civil wars for many years until recently but Muslim Sudan faces a secession by its Christian and animist south in the months ahead and both sides are reported to be rearming.

Violence-ridden Chad, one of the world's poorest and most corrupt states, has been torn apart by political violence and civil war since 1960.

Now it's on the brink of a humanitarian disaster after its government demanded a 3,300-strong U.N. peacekeeping force withdraws, leaving some 500,000 refugees in the east at serious risk from armed marauders and brigands.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels conflict resolution organization, warned in September that Guinea's armed forces threaten democratic rule that could throw the country, and much of West Africa, into chaos.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 150 million people, is gripped by political turmoil as a divisive presidential election scheduled for January looms closer.

Its oil-rich southern region faces the resumption of an insurgency that has slashed oil production by one third since 2005, while Muslim and Christian militants are slaughtering each other in the central region.

There are other flash points across the continent, which means good business for arms dealers, sometimes in their own back yard.

According to arms watchdog Ceasefire Campaign, South Africa, the only state on the continent with an indigenous arms industry outside of Egypt, is one of the main providers of weapons on the continent.

In June, the lobby group said the Pretoria government had sold arms worth $1.7 billion to states blacklisted by South Africa's National Conventional Arms Control Act because of human rights abuses, because they are engaged in conflict issues or are subject to U.N. embargoes.

South Africa's arms exports are classified. But Rob Thomson, a senior Ceasefire Campaign official, said his organization had been able to piece together a comprehensive list of sales since 2002. Buyers included Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates, he said.

All told, he declared, "there are 58 countries that we have sold arms to in the last 10 years that we shouldn't have sold arms to."

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