Procurement: May 22, 2002

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Interfax-Military News Agency reported that a Chechen rebel group was wiped out in the Argun Gorge on 18 May, and that several US-made M-16 rifles were recovered. Usually, the rebels carry Russian-made small arms or the "Borz" submachinegun (made at Grozny's Krasny Molot plant from 1994 to 1999). 

According to a Russian headquarters representative, the "militants are forced to purchase small arms, [which] they earlier had in abundance, abroad." The Russians may be drawing the wrong conclusions, since the M-16 in Chechen hands is apparently more of a 'prestige' than a practical weapon. Considering the logistical problems of ammunition supply (the 5.45X39 ammunition used in the Russian AK-74 will not fit the M-16, which is chambered for 5.56X45mm NATO rounds), the American rifles are impractical.

Belgian-made M-16s have been discovered in the region. On 17 August 2001 three "active supporters of Wahhabism" from the Kabardino-Balkar Republic's Prokhladnenskiy Rayon Baksanenok settlement were detained by officers of the North Caucasus Regional Administration for Combating Organized Crime [RUBOP]. 

They had been carrying out armed raids on mostly on Russian-owned houses in the Prokhladnenskiy Rayon, looting them of household goods and committing other acts of garden-variety banditry. One of the three had supposedly graduated from one of Khattab's training camps in 1999.

The RUBOP officers confiscated an automatic rifle of Belgian manufacture, similar to the M-16 (Russian criminals also favor modern Italian Beretta and Austrian Glock pistols, in addition to Tokarev Tula).

The Russian source said the military had never before seized any US-made small arms from the rebels prior to the 18 May incident. This statement is also inaccurate, since the 28 June 2001 issue of Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported the Federal Border Service main staff claim that 12 rebels killed the day before in the Sharo-Argun Gorge were armed with M-16s. The bodies of one Arab and several Chechens, U.S. M-16 rifles, camouflage uniforms and NATO equipment were discovered at the scene of the initial fighting following the fighter's retreat. 

The FPS claimed that "these are not just gunmen but good professionals." At the time, the FPS was also certain that there were many Arabs, members of the Taleban and people originally from Middle East countries among those blocked in the gorge. Chechen rebels carrying M-16s should not have been a surprise for the Kremlin, since the Russian Federation Armed Forces General Staff published reconnaissance data on 4 November 1999 that the rebels had M-16s. 

There were even reports of M-16s from the First Chechen War. On 28 August 1996, both the NTV "Segodnya" newscast and reported that Russian intelligence discovered a detachment of fighters dressed in NATO uniforms and armed with M-16 rifles near the Grozny train station. They speculated that the separatists may have obtained the western weapons and uniforms from Turkey. However, the rebels realize that such gear would make them stand out. This would be particularly dangerous when one of the rebel's strongest cards is the ability to blend into the myriad of armed pro-Moscow groups roaming Chechnya. The rebels might have been trying to boost the moral of their supporters and fool observers into thinking they were receiving covert support from the West.

Arms smuggling on Russia's borders is so rampant that it's hard to imagine anyone who wanted an AK-series weapon would be unable to acquire one. In 2000 alone, the Russian Federal Border Guard Service seized 1,654 arms and 132,000 rounds of ammunition on the frontiers of the Russian Federation and other countries it protected. The major share of arms and ammo contraband came through North Caucasus regional border guard department areas.

Black market prices vary across the old Soviet Union. Close to the North Caucasus combat zone, corrupt Russian troops may trade weapons for drugs, alcohol and/or food. In other parts of Russia, an AKSU "Krinkov" assault rifle can bring as much as $1,200-1,500 on the Black Market. The Dnesiter Republic (formerly part of Moldovia) has even been accused of directly selling arms from their factories to the rebels.

The simplest way to start solving this mystery would be for the Kremlin to provide the serial numbers of the captured weapons to the Pentagon, which would then be able to start tracing where these weapons went after they left the Colt or Fabrique Nationale factory. - Adam Geibel

 


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