Somali weapons market booms
By Ali Musa Abdi
Mogadishu - Islamist insurgents and fighters from Somalia's government forces mingle peacefully at Mogadishu's main weapons market, but both sides are stocking up ahead of a major government offensive.
Civilians have fled the city and many shops have closed down, as the government offensive, supported by African Union troops, is believed to be imminent.
For weapons dealer Abdi Hirsi however, business is brisk.
His best-selling item is a Chinese handgun, whose market value has appreciated by 25% in recent days.
"The Chinese pistol which was going for $560 now fetches around 700," he said. "I'm talking about a brand new one, complete with sealed packaging and all."
"If you buy a larger quantity, we can bring the price down a bit or make a serious discount on the ammo," Hirsi said.
The young dealer added apologetically that rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers were out of stock since last week. "But I can get some from other merchants if there's a serious buyer."
The market is situated in Bakara, a restive northern neighbourhood of Mogadishu and the mercantile heart of the Somali capital.
An intricate web of narrow alleyways that has chronically provided useful shelter to armed groups, Bakara offers everything from food to textile products, as well as gold, fuel and a vast choice of looted goods.
In one corner of the market area is the weapons market, which is known in Somali as Irtoogte - "sky-shooters" - because dealers and customers habitually test the goods on the spot.
"Testing is essential to verify that the product is operational, we can't be selling fake guns to people," said 34-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, another arms retailer.
Irtoogte was officially closed down by the transitional federal government in 2007 and the Shebab - the rebel group sympathetic to al-Qaeda that controls most of the country - also banned it a year later after capturing the area.
Mogadishu's dealers started conducting their business less openly but for those who can afford it, purchasing an assault rifle is barely harder than buying a mobile phone.
"You can't display your weapons on the street like before but it is important to carry on and keep looking for customers," said Mohamed.
"The Shebab and the government may confiscate our goods if they see them so we have to keep our commodities in a safe place and deliver directly to the buyer," he explained.
The Sky-shooters market also includes repairmen.
"They can do a nice job with a lot of things from machineguns to ageing anti-aircraft weapons. They work for everybody because they are not factionally biased," said Abdullahi Sheikh Omar, another dealer.
Sheikh Omar deals mainly in the everlasting AK-47, which he explained sells at $650 when new and as little as $150 when used.
Landmines are hard to find but available and ammunition comes in many sizes and at generally low cost, such is the extent to which Somalia has been awash with weapons for years.
Mohamoud Abdi, a 23-year-old Shebab fighter looking for a good deal, is disappointed because he can't find ammunition for the US-made 106mm M40 recoilless rifle, an old but efficient anti-tank weapon.
"The guns are here but there's no ammunition for the 106. If we were able to use those rifles, the African Union forces would scamper home like the UN troops did in 1995," he said.
The UN group monitoring the arms embargo on Somalia said in a report a year ago that "as much as 80% of the international investment in building the TFG security forces has been diverted to purposes other than those for which it was intended."
Amnesty International said in a recent report that it believed "the TFG lacks the capacity to prevent the diversion of substantial quantities of its own weaponry and military equipment to other armed groups and to Somalia's domestic arms markets."