Lebanon hit by black market weapons boom

Demand for assault rifles rises as Lebanese seek personal protection amid fears of new civil war. The price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle has soared in Lebanon, riding the wave of political crisis, community tension and fears of a new civil war.  

It used to be 100 dollars (76 euros). Now it’s more than 700 dollars.


“It’s a stampede,” an arms dealer who did not wish to be named said.


“Those who have guns are keeping them or not selling except for a huge profit, and those who don’t have them are buying so they can face any eventuality.”


He said a cartridge clip that used to go for two dollars now costs 20 dollars, and “a Kalashnikov has gone from a hundred dollars to 700 or 750 dollars.”


After the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, militias handed in their weapons, all of them except the Shiite group Hezbollah, whose guerrillas were fighting Israeli occupation in south Lebanon.


The United Nations — as well as Lebanese officials — have demanded that Hezbollah disarm, but it has not done so.


After the current political crisis sparked deadly Beirut street clashes last month between opposition supporters and those backing the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, “everyone is looking for guns,” said a businessman close to the arms trade.


Requesting anonymity, he added that Hezbollah, which heads the opposition movement, is not selling weapons on the local market.


The source of guns now available is twofold, the businessman said. Either they have been passed from hand to hand down the years or they were smuggled into the country, generally from Iraq.


Last December, police in the north seized weapons in a raid on offices of a pro-Syrian party, which said they were left over from the 1980s “from the time of the resistance” against Israel.


But guns that have hit the market recently are brought by road from Iraq via Syria, often hidden in containers, lorries, “and even concealed inside car doors,” the businessman said.


“To ensure they are not found by Syrian customs officers, only small quantities are smuggled at any one time,” he added.


On February 4, Syrian officials said they had impounded an Iraqi truck transporting guns to Lebanon, and on Thursday a lorry loaded with weapons destined for Hezbollah was intercepted by security forces in east Beirut.


A UN report late last year on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, spoke of “information concerning arms movements on the Syrian-Lebanese border.”


For the arms dealer, who uses intermediaries to buy guns from Iraq, the former Yugoslavia remains an elusive El Dorado.


“If only I could break into the market over there,” he said. “I’d bring over all the Kalashnikovs and sell them in the blink of an eye.”


A client’s motives for buying a gun are unimportant. In Lebanon, when it comes to doing business, politics plays no part — both smugglers and dealers have links with all parties, the businessman said.


Kalshnikovs and US-made M-16s are most highly sought after, as are handguns. “But not heavy weapons,” said the businessman. “It’s more difficult to bring in a cannon or rocket launcher, and demand is low.”


The black market price of a rocket launcher has not risen — it is still 300 dollars.


Patrick Haenni, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the absence of demand for heavy weapons is telling.


“It’s true that there is a general tension that is leading people to arm themselves, but I don’t think this indicates imminent hostilities,” he said.


Haenni believes the current trend to buy guns may give rise to “localized blunders,” as happened in late January when seven people were killed and more than 300 wounded in the Beirut street fighting.


“But for civil war to break out again requires a political decision, and for the moment there has not been one,” he said.

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