BEIRUT, Feb 21, 2008 (AFP) – As street clashes between rival political factions in Beirut fuel fears of a new civil war, many Lebanese have started to arm themselves as they prepare for the worst, arms dealers say.
“Groups or individuals, looking to make themselves more secure, are starting to buy weapons” on the black market, said one dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“If a Kalashnikov would sell for between 100 and 150 dollars on the black market a year ago, the price today is 1,000 dollars,” the dealer told AFP. The price of a more sophisticated Dragunov sniper rifle has more than trebled from 800 dollars to 2,700 dollars over the same period, he said.
He added that the most popular weapons on the market were the easy-to-use Kalashnikov or US-made M-16 rifle.
Officially, all of Lebanon’s warring militias except the Shiite Hezbollah were disarmed under the peace deal which ended the 1975-90 civil war. But there is a widespread suspicion that many of them have in fact stockpiled their light weapons.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a prominent anti-Syrian politician, charged in the past week that “some groups in the mountains and elsewhere” have recently “been armed by their main arms supplier” — an allusion to Syria.
Tradition is also playing a role; most Lebanese keep a weapon at home. Some have now begun updating their arsenals, while others have been preparing to leave the country, one Beirut-based Christian businessmen said as he proudly showed off a new rifle with sophisticated infrared sights which set him back 1,250 dollars.
He said he recently showed his 19-year-old son how to fire “the old family Kalashnikov”.
“If ever the armed groups come into our area, to smash up our buildings, we have to know how to defend ourselves, that’s all,” he said.
Fady Fadel, a law professor at the Antonine University outside Beirut, said he was concerned at the increase in sales of light weapons.
“The problem is that there is still no international convention stopping the sale of these arms, and that the main manufacturing countries are sitting on the UN Security Council”, he said referring to Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
As the US standoff with Iran plays itself out in a proxy local battle between the Western-backed government and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition, Lebanon has staggered into its worst political crisis since the 15-year civil war, which claimed 150,000 lives.
The political standoff, exacerbated by a spate of recent street clashes between the rival sides’ supporters, has blocked the election of a president for almost three months, leaving a destabilising power vacuum.
“Are we heading towards civil war? In some ways, we’ve already reached that point,” said a businessman who belonged to one of the Christian militias during the war and asked not to be named.
“It remains to be seen what form it takes,” he added.