Reuters: Ukraine, after war, becomes a trove for black market arms trade
An expert on ex-Soviet organized crime, said some of those Ukrainian weapons would be transported through the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, then into the Mediterranean, some south through the Balkans, and some through Russia's North Caucasus region
On Feb. 12 last year, the same day that a ceasefire ended the worst of the fighting in eastern Ukraine between rebels and government forces, a former rebel fighter seized a chance to turn his inside knowledge of the conflict into hard cash.
He traveled to a spot on the Russian-Ukrainian border where he retrieved a cache of weapons hidden there earlier by his comrades in the pro-Russian rebel movement.
Four days later, shortly before 6:00 p.m., he and a friend showed up in a taxi at a fuel station in western Russia where they had arranged to meet a contact ready to buy the arms, according to Russian court documents.
He and the friend opened the trunk of the taxi, and began transferring the cargo into the buyer's vehicle. Concealed in a sports bag and a rucksack were three automatic weapons, 1,258 bullets, 20 grenades, and 20 detonators for the grenades.
The buyer was an undercover police officer and the former rebel, identified in the court documents as Y.V. Mikhailov, was sentenced this year to two and a half years in jail.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Moscow-backed separatists and Ukraine's pro-Western government killed hundreds of people, displaced thousands of residents and created a Cold War-style stand off between Moscow in the West.
It also had another consequence that is less visible but could in time prove equally dangerous: the conflict took huge amounts of arms out of government arsenals and put them in the hands of irregular units unable to properly control them.
Now the fighting has subsided, according to security officials and experts on the arms trade, the weapons are getting into the hands of criminals and being spirited to buyers well beyond the conflict zone.
Interviews by Reuters with security officials and rebels, as well as study of law enforcement data and court documents have shown that weapons are being channeled out of the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in significant numbers, in some cases as part of an organized underground trade.
"Of course, they have moved arms across, and they're moving them across now," Igor, a fighter with a pro-Russian rebel unit in eastern Ukraine told Reuters in an interview. "Mainly they take Kalashnikovs," he said.
When, in the spring of 2014, the armed rebellion started in Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, police and soldiers abandoned their bases.
That left the rebel militias to pillage the stores where Ukraine -- one of the world's biggest arms manufacturers - kept its sizable arsenal.
Meanwhile on the pro-Ukrainian side, because the army was in near-collapse, irregular militias were formed, some of them only loosely part of the chain of command, and they were given, or scavenged, weapons from official supplies.
While the fighting raged, the weapons stayed in the conflict zone. In February 2015, the sides in the conflict agreed a ceasefire. The fighting did not stop, but the intensity subsided, and weapons started leaking out of the battlefield.
Official data is patchy but what figures there are indicate the problem is getting worse. The number of prosecutions for weapons offences so far this year in Ukraine is double the amount for the whole of 2015, according to the general prosecutor's office.
In many cases, the cause is negligence. Irregular units often do not keep proper control of the weapons in their inventories or fail to make soldiers surrender their guns when they go on leave.
“It’s mostly people taking them home for the sake of it," said Serhiy Alyoshin, the chief of police in the town of Sloviansk, which is on the edge of the conflict zone and controlled by Kiev.
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