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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Weapons smugglers thrive in chaos of western Pakistan

BY TOM HUSSAIN
McClatchy Newspapers

KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- The P226, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol made by the weapons manufacturer SIG Sauer, is a favorite of law enforcement agencies and militaries worldwide, from the FBI and Navy SEALs to NATO troops in Afghanistan and police departments across the United States.

But the shipment of 232 pistols that arrived in the Pakistani city of Quetta in January was intended for a different recipient: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al-Qaida affiliate that's accused of targeting Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The group used some of the pistols in deadly attacks and distributed others to favored militants - sort of a jihadi version of a corporate bonus - according to militants and criminals in Quetta.

Even more troublesome to U.S. officials, however, is the purported source. A Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant who received two of the pistols, and who gave his name only as Raees, told McClatchy Newspapers that smugglers had purchased the shipment from a gang of corrupt Afghan National Army soldiers, who'd pilfered them from a NATO armory in Afghanistan.

The prospect that al-Qaida affiliates are using the same weapons as the SEAL team that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last May illustrates the ease with which Pakistani criminal and militant gangs draw on a network of gunrunners that operates from neighboring Afghanistan and Iran to procure a wide range of Western, Russian and Chinese weapons.

In Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said that while he couldn't confirm the report, it was troublesome to consider that the U.S.-led NATO coalition's weapons were making their way into al-Qaida hands.

"But it's more worrying that they continue to get resourced at a level that would allow them to make purchases like that," said the official, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.

The weapons pipeline is fraught with shadowy deal-making and persistent danger - McClatchy correspondents were detained twice while reporting this story - but it's served the militants well. Pakistani human rights organizations calculated that 89 people were killed last year alone in sectarian attacks in the western province of Baluchistan, including 63 in the provincial capital of Quetta. In the deadliest attack, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants hijacked a bus that was carrying Shiite pilgrims to neighboring Iran in September, executing 26 of them.

The weapons have contributed to a worsening crisis in remote Baluchistan, where a variety of armed groups hold sway. The sparsely populated terrain of scrubland and hills, ruled mostly by tribal chiefs with little interference from the government, has allowed nationalist insurgents to wage an eight-year rebellion against vastly superior Pakistani security forces - and makes it ideal for smuggling.....Continue Reading...

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