Fear mounts over fate of firearms as UN mission ends in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : As a top UN official confirmed Monday that the world body would pull out of Nepal’s floundering peace process Friday midnight, there is mounting uncertainty – and fear – about the fate of over 6,000 firearms belonging to the Maoists as well as the national army that had been under its custody for four years.

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“The arms have always belonged to the parties involved,” said Karen Landgren, chief of the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) that had been part of the peace process in Nepal since 2007.

“It is not for UNMIN to do any handing over of the arms.”

After Nepal’s Maoist guerrillas ended a decade of armed insurrection – that had killed over 16,000 people – and inked a peace accord in 2006, their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) then handed over 3,475 arms and a large quantity of explosives to UNMIN.

The weapons were locked up in storage containers, which remain in the camps built for PLA fighters. The explosives were disposed of amidst scepticism that the rebels had not handed over their entire arsenal.

UNMIN had deployed monitors to watch the containers round the clock and ensure they were not taken out and used by the former rebels once again.

The arrangement was agreed on by both the Maoists and ruling parties as an indication that the former rebels were not being forced to surrender arms and had not signed the peace pact after being defeated by the state.

To reciprocate the gesture, the Nepal Army also deposited 2,855 firearms that were then locked up in army barracks and kept under UNMIN’s supervision.

With UNMIN’s tenure ending Friday and the UN Security Council so far refusing to extend its stay due to disagreements between the parties and the Maoists, the caretaker government last month asked UNMIN to hand over the PLA arms before departing.

However, Landgren said there can’t be any such handover unless both the parties to the conflict agree, as per the standard UN operating procedure.

The Maoists, who are seeking UNMIN’s extension till May, when the peace process is scheduled to wind up, have said they will not allow their weapons to be given to the government.

Against this backdrop and the government’s inability to announce a substitute for UNMIN from Saturday, there is growing uncertainty and fear about the firearms, especially those in the Maoist cantonments.

Landgren said she could not say what will happen to the arms once UNMIN exits but hoped that the “trust and confidence” in the PLA and Nepal Army’s chains of command will not be violated and that the warring parties would also come to an agreement before the pullout.

Nearly 300 UNMIN personnel will exit Nepal from Saturday.

Its work, however, will remain incomplete as the nearly 20,000 PLA fighters, who had remained under its supervision, have not been demobilised yet and their fate remains uncertain.

Landgren said the Security Council will continue to monitor the situation in Nepal for three years.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at [email protected])