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 Post subject: "Sorry, we killed the wrong guys"
 Post Posted: Sun Sep 04, 2005 6:13 pm 
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How Sri Lanka is held hostage to thousands of illegal arms

By Ameen Izzadeen
@Khaleej Times Online
20 July 2005


SOME time back, two youths from a Colombo suburb were travelling in a public bus to a southern coastal town where they were to buy a second-hand mobile phone. Half way through their journey, they were shot dead by two men who got into the bus. The victims had no criminal records.


They were decent youths — one had just secured a job and the other had just returned from West Asia. While the police were drawing a blank in their investigations into the killings, they received a call from one of the hit men. He simply said, "Sorry, we killed the wrong guys."

This headline-hitting incident is one example of the wanton disregard for human life and the ease with which killings take place in Sri Lanka.

In another case, a suspect confessed he was paid a mere Rs 5,000 (US$ 50) for the murder. One reason for the high number of killings in Sri Lanka is the proliferation of illicit small arms. This is a worldwide phenomenon which the United Nations itself is struggling to tackle. An international conference was held from July 11 to 15 in New York to review progress on the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms of 2001, but IANSA, an international action network on small arms, says governments are not doing enough to tackle proliferation.

On July 8, the government in a much-publicised ceremony at Independence (Freedom) Square in Colombo crushed some 32,000 illegal firearms which it had seized over four decades. The ceremony, held on the eve of international day against illegal arms, was largely a move to placate the UN. Police Chief Chandra Fernando, whose 100,000 strong force cuts a sorry figure in the face of a soaring crime rate, was seen, in a symbolic gesture, crushing with his feet the World War II era firearms.

The destruction of thousands of rickety rifles and shot guns by no means a guarantee that we are free from the fear of the firearm.

On the very day the world was observing the international day against illegal firearms (July 9), bullet-riddled bodies of a businessman and three of his aides were found near a popular rugby ground in Colombo. Illegal firearms are responsible for more than 1,400 homicides a year — nearly 4 killings a day. But the types of firearms that are used in criminal activities today are different from the weapons that were crushed by bulldozers at Independence Square.

Today's criminals largely use automatic pistols, revolvers or T-56 automatic rifles -- the Chinese version of AK-47 Kalashnikov.

There are at least 80,000 T-56 rifles in illegal circulation, according to a conservative estimate. But the figure is much higher, if you add weapons in the hands of the LTTE and thousands of automatic handguns and grenades that are in the possession of criminals.

The government time and again offers firearms amnesty, saying those who hand over their illegal weapons will not be prosecuted. But only a few respond.

The illegal firearms issue is certainly an offshoot of Sri Lanka's violent politics. Illegal firearms first began to flood Colombo's underworld when in the mid 1980s, the LTTE emerged the dominant rebel group and turned its guns on cadres of other Tamil groups. Thousands of militants fled to Colombo; most of them with their weapons, which they sold to underworld figures and drug dealers to buy air tickets to European destinations.

The second rush of firearms took place in 1989 when the withdrawing Indian peace keeping forces formed a militant group called the Tamil National Army and armed the outfit with unmarked assault rifles which resembled the T-56. When the LTTE later took control of the North and East, the TNA cadres also fled to Colombo and sold their weapons to buy air tickets to Europe.

The third source of illegal firearms is the military deserters. There are more than 70,000 military deserters who are still at large. While some of them have found employment in private security firms or as bodyguards of powerful figures, including politicians, others have joined criminal gangs or formed gangs of their own, carrying out robberies and contract killings.

Police are unable to crack down on these gangs because they enjoy political patronage and in some instances a close rapport with the people of the area they dominate. Some believe that there exists an unholy alliance between the corrupt police officer, the politician and the gang leader. It is no exaggeration if one were to say that Sri Lanka is held at gunpoint.


Ameen Izzadeen is a veteran journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka


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