Tuesday, February 5, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A notorious arms bazaar that provides a source of weapons for al Qaeda-backed fighters in Pakistan’s northwestern areas faces closure after heavy fighting between government troops and Islamic militants late last month, reports from the area said.

The fighting erupted Jan. 25 when militants loyal to South Waziristan insurgent commander Baitullah Mehsud blocked the strategic Kohat Tunnel, 30 miles south of Peshawar, and seized four civilian trucks carrying ammunition and other supplies for the government troops.

The troops staged a major operation to recover the ammunition, and both sides suffered heavy casualties in five days of fighting around Darra Adam Khel, a town in the North West Frontier Province, whose residents almost exclusively engage in the manufacture of arms.

The army eventually recovered the trucks and the ammunition, but lost 28 men in the fighting, with a total of 72 militants also killed, according to official figures released by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas in Islamabad.

Darra Adam Khel, whose single main street and side alleys are lined with weapons workshops, is situated at the edge of the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, close to the Afghan border. It has served as a major arms bazaar since the British colonial era, and authorities have never been able to bring it under control.

Before independence, tribal arms manufacturers were making such weapons as the long-barreled Afghan rifle called the jezel, which claimed the lives of many British troops operating in the area around the turn of the 20th century. They also made crude copies of the British Enfield rifle, which often exploded in the faces of its users.

In more recent times, the arms dealers in Darra Adam Khel have been able to supply, and often reproduce, the popular Kalashnikov submachine gun, which became the weapon of choice for Islamic militants by the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, in 2001.

Kalashnikovs were among the weapons used by militants in the recent fighting in the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and Darra Adam Khel itself.

After the fighting ended late last week, authorities in the area allowed most shops to reopen for business in the town, but refused to allow those selling lethal weapons to resume sales.

News media reports monitored in Islamabad quoted officials as saying the arms dealers eventually would be allowed to resume selling small weapons such as pistols and hunting rifles, but not the more lethal weapons such as Kalashnikovs, grenades, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft machine guns, all of which were utilized in last week’s fighting.

That might disrupt the supply of weapons to the Islamists inside Pakistan as well as the cross-border flow of arms to the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, though the reports said militants have other sources of supply further south in Baluchistan province.

When the fighting ended late last week, the militants left behind huge arms caches in their hide-outs close to Darra Adam Khel.

Among the items shown to local reporters were not only submachine guns and ammunition, but also several pounds of explosive materials, including C3 and C4. The troops are said to have seized a large number of grenades and three suicide belts already loaded with explosives and ready for use by suicide bombers.

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