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Tracking the gun

Updated July 07, 2013
— File Photo
— File Photo
— File Photo
— File Photo

“Weapons are pouring in from all directions and through all means to Karachi. The city has a consistent demand for weapons and ammunition that encourages those who are efficient in this business and are doing what profits them the most,” says Afzal Ali Shigri, who was the top law enforcer in Sindh in the mid-90s, the period when the city witnessed unprecedented unrest spawned by ethnic, sectarian and factional killings.

Shigri left the force and the province years ago and has a permanent home in Islamabad, yet he is not indifferent to what is happening in the province of which he was the police chief with special interest in its sprawling, unruly and fluid capital.

“Let alone the weapons coming through illegal channels, the governments have issued hundreds of thousands of licences for pistols and assault rifles to their favourites. There are uncountable cases in which such licences have been issued to unverified individuals and holders keep several weapons against one such licence,” he said.

Lately the government had launched a scheme to computerise the records of firearm licences through the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), which went dormant a year ago when it was in its initial phase.

“The illegal weapons purchased against legal licences are in huge quantity in the city which are being used in the killing spree as well.”

Shigri said a large number of people, who had been uprooted from the country’s northwest because of unrelenting unrest, had also added to the weapons in the city. He said Pakhtuns were culturally bound to carry weapons and that did not bind them to get a licence from the government.

“Among the migrants from the northwest are included a fairly large number of militants, who blended with the uprooted Pakhtuns. They brought large caches of firearms and created their own chain of weapon supply coming from their comrades in the tribal areas and further in Afghanistan.”

For Shigri, weapons were coming from everywhere, but he was wary of the piles of weapons, grenades, bombs and ammunition left by the former Soviet Union’s forces a quarter-century ago when they ended their occupation of the landlocked country and marched home.

“We can’t imagine the loads of arms and ammunitions the Russians left behind in Afghanistan when they withdrew. In an official meeting then in Islamabad we were told that the Russian arms and ammunition were enough to be used for decades by the warring factions of Afghan Mujahideen.”

Those weapons ultimately got a passage to Pakistan, particularly its largest metropolis where all sorts of militant groups and mafias had begun to strengthen.

According to Shigri, the Soviet weapons and rounds in Pakistan were available cheaply.

“I can vividly recall that a gang of bandits had no more than an AK-47 assault rifle, but six months after the Soviet withdrawal, every second member of such gangs was holding an automatic rifle,” he said.

He said there were several routes from where weapons made way to Karachi, which included sea route.

Pakistan’s 1,600 miles long porous border with Afghanistan had great prospect for criminals to smuggle weapons into Pakistan. Neither country has resources to man it completely, which makes weapon smuggling more convenient. Inside Pakistan too there is a maze of routes, which culminate in Karachi without meeting any checkposts, which have been established on the known routes. He, however, said there could be an involvement of the personnel of law enforcement agencies at a low level in the illicit trade.

“Weapons are coming from Afghanistan through Balochistan, Fata and Pakhtunkhwa. Besides, a significant quantity of weapons is produced in Darra and other parts of the northwest, which too makes its way south.”

Shigri took a long pause before saying that the authorities had seized boats loaded with weapons in Pakistan’s territorial waters.

“Apart from land routes, such weapons could be smuggled to Karachi from Balochistan,” he said.

“It is not surprising to know that the city has over two million weapons and the number is getting bigger with each passing day. It includes everything from pistols to grenades, RPGs, sniper rifles, machine guns, etc.”

He said thousands of missing Nato containers from Karachi port might also have provided a lot of stuff to those in the weapon business. Similarly, hundreds of Nato trucks had been ‘nicely cleaned’ of artillery before being burnt by militants in parts of Pakistan.

“We have several criminal and militant groups, which are creating an increasing demand for weapons. From simple crime to land grabbing, kidnapping for ransom and targeted killing, everything is happening in the virtually unpoliced Karachi, thus it has become a huge market for weapon suppliers. The trade has, in fact, become self-supporting.”