PRISTINA, Kosovo — Even four years after NATO troops ended the conflict in Kosovo, illegal weapons are presenting a security concern and also a destabilizing factor in development of the province.

One way of tackling the problem is frequent intelligence-led Kosovo Force operations. In just one week of such operations, working together with United Nations Mission in Kosovo and Kosovo Police Service, KFOR has confiscated 15 rifles, 21 rockets or anti-tank weapons, one grenade and 406 rounds of ammunition.

That is just a part of more than 4,600 weapons and 700,000 rounds of ammunition KFOR has confiscated over the past two years.

The weapons collected are normally in good condition, said KFOR spokesman Garry Bannister-Green.

The UNMIK and local police participate in operations with KFOR to collect evidence that they can use against those they find in possession of illegal weapons. They hope punishment — up to eight years in prison or a fine of up to 7,500 euros, or both — will encourage people to turn over their weapons.

“That’s why we’re going to [highly] publicize our finds,” he said.

A recently released Small Arms Survey report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme shows that there are between 330,000 and 460,000 weapons in the region, most of them illegal. It is estimated the majority of weapons that are illegal are Kalashnikovs or other military-grade weapons.

“They are military-grade weapons, and these will never be registered,” said Marie-France Desjardins, manager for the development agency.

About 25,000 privately owned weapons, mostly hunting weapons, were registered by May when the registration campaign ended.

In an attempt to improve the security situation and get the weapons out of the hands of civilians, the development agency is preparing to launch a Weapons-in-Exchange-for-Development program later this summer. Under the test program, residents of two local Kosovo communities, Vucitrn and Vitina, will collect weapons from their communities and suggest development projects that their communities will receive in return. Depending on the success of the program, it may spread to other areas of Kosovo.

The KFOR troops have now been able to shift from looking for weapons by conduction searches at numerous checkpoints to less-predictable methods, thanks to the improved security situation in the province. And that makes it harder to hide illegal weapons.

“Because we are very much more flexible and mobile, it’s more difficult to predict, more difficult to counter what we are doing,” Bannister-Green said.

Through their operations and acting on received intelligence, KFOR troops have seized weapons found in houses, buildings, buried in the ground, in fields and even in vehicles.

Desjardins and other people working for international organizations in Kosovo witness daily shootings, which are not always related to criminal activities. Celebratory weapons firings, such as those during weddings, are common. Incidents similar to a recent accident when a boy shot his grandmother with a registered hunting weapon are not unusual.

Only a fraction of all weapons in the country are held by the UNMIK and local police and individuals with permits. The Small Arms Survey report indicates that apart from criminals, businessmen and ex-combatants, many civilians in Kosovo hold onto weapons for their personal safety.

“It is a trap to security,” Desjardins said. “People have to realize that they cannot take security into their own hands. …”

Criminal activities involving firearms have decreased since the conflict ended in 1999, but the rates are still high compared with other post-communist countries, the report indicates.

Bannister-Green and Desjardins agree that the abundance of weapons in civilian hands is not only a great security concern but also a hindrance to economic development and financial investment.

“There are still too many crimes, too many killings,” Desjardins said.

“[The abundance of weapons is] not a good sign for business investment,” she said. “We need more investment, and we need more security.”

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