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South Asia awash in small weapons

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — South Asia is awash in small arms — many bought by the United States for Afghanistan's mujahedeen during the 1980s — and large quantities are in the hands of insurgents throughout the subcontinent, arms experts say.

Small arms "are the weapons of choice" in many of the small regional insurgencies in Pakistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka or rebel movements in northeastern India, said Faruq Faisel, spokesman for the South Asia Partnership that analyzes regional security.

"The weapons are cheap and easy to operate even by children as young as 10," he said at a panel Tuesday, the second day of a two-week U.N. conference where more than 180 nations are trying to reach agreement on a plan to curb the illegal trafficking in small arms and light weapons.

Much of the proliferation of small weapons throughout India and even as far south as Sri Lanka is the legacy of Afghanistan's war with the former Soviet Union during the 1980s, security analysts said.

From 1979-89, the United States channeled at least $2 billion in weapons aid to Afghan mujahedeen who fought successfully to oust the Soviet army, according to the Small Arms Survey 2001 by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies released Tuesday.

The arms were sent via Pakistan, a major transit point, and many were siphoned off, according to the report.

But because of the widespread availability, Pakistan has become a major source of small arms in South Asia, both from the black market and arms supplied covertly to insurgent groups throughout South Asia, regional arms analysts said.

"Weapons from that time, and from that corner of South Asia, can be traced to gun markets in India and can even be found as far away as Sri Lanka," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of Human Rights Watch's arms division.

Precise figures for weapons trafficking and illegally owned guns have been difficult to confirm, analysts said.

In Pakistan, a vast array of military rifles are available — from U.S. M-16s and Israeli Uzis to Russian Kalashnikovs — along with an array of other small arms manufactured in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

Moinuddin Haider, Pakistan's interior minister, emphasized in his speech to the conference Tuesday that in "segments of our society possessing and carrying arms has been a proud cultural legacy."

But he said Pakistan is determined to get rid of the illegal small arms and light weapons.

"Pakistan became a victim of this proliferation to the extent that even our places of worship and business became a target of this menace," Haider said. "It threatened our political stability, social cohesion and economic growth."