Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bangladesh: Janes Intelligence Review on Chittagong Weapons Haul


Speculation in the regional press in the immediate aftermath of the 2 April seizure suggested the consignment was moved overland from southwestern China to the port of Sittwe on Myanmar's Arakan coast on the Bay of Bengal. However, sources familiar with the case told JIR that the consignment originated from the port of Hong Kong and, at that point, only involved new Chinese weaponry.
From Hong Kong, the main consignment was shipped to Singapore where more weapons were added. The second consignment is understood to have comprised all the non-Chinese weaponry involved. According to Bangladeshi press reports, this included weapons of both Israeli and US manufacture, although it remains unclear whether additional ammunition was also added to the shipment in Singapore.

New details emerge on Bangladesh arms haul
Anthony Davis

Following one of South Asia's largest ever seizures of illicit weaponry in the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong in April, there has been considerable interest within regional security and intelligence circles in establishing the background to the incident.

Intelligence sources outlined to JIR the salient features of a shipment which, had it been successful, could have had a hugely destabilising impact on India's insurgency-prone northeastern states.

Speculation in the regional press in the immediate aftermath of the 2 April seizure suggested the consignment was moved overland from southwestern China to the port of Sittwe on Myanmar's Arakan coast on the Bay of Bengal. However, sources familiar with the case told JIR that the consignment originated from the port of Hong Kong and, at that point, only involved new Chinese weaponry.

No reliable list of the seized weapons has yet to be made public. However, the shipment - altogether worth an estimated US$4.5m-$7m - is known to have included around 2,000 automatic and semi-automatic weapons, among them 1,290 Type 56-1/Type 56-2 Kalashnikov-type assault rifles; 150 T-69 rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers; quantities of 40mm RPG ammunition; 25,000 hand-grenades; and 1.8m rounds of small-arms ammunition.

From Hong Kong, the main consignment was shipped to Singapore where more weapons were added. The second consignment is understood to have comprised all the non-Chinese weaponry involved. According to Bangladeshi press reports, this included weapons of both Israeli and US manufacture, although it remains unclear whether additional ammunition was also added to the shipment in Singapore.

The shipment was then transported north through the Strait of Malacca to be transhipped in the Bay of Bengal to two trawlers, the Kazaddan and Amanat, which ferried the weaponry to a jetty on the Karnapuli River, Chittagong.

Following a tip-off - understood to have probably come from Indian intelligence sources - the off-loading of the weapons was interrupted in the early hours of 2 April by the Chittagong Port Police and Bangladesh Rifles. Nine truckloads of munitions were seized, although it is believed that one loaded truck had left the jetty before the arrival of the port police.

According to JIR's sources, the shipment involved two key insurgent movements from India's northeast - the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), which since 1997 has been in protracted peace talks with the Indian government, held mostly in Bangkok.

Traditionally, ties between ULFA and the NSCN-IM have been strained, and ULFA has cultivated far better links with the Naga insurgents' rival Kaplang faction (NSCN-K) based in the remote border areas of Myanmar's Sagaing Division. However, following the severe setbacks suffered by the ULFA as a result of the loss of camps in Bhutan in December 2003, a new entente has developed. One intelligence official noted: "The NSCN and ULFA were working this jointly. The NSCN has better contacts in the arms trade while ULFA has the money and the foreign political connections." According to JIR sources, the purchases were financed by a foreign intelligence service seeking to destabilise India's northeast, and payment for the original shipment was made by the NSCN-IM to an agent in Hong Kong.

The abortive shipment involved two important figures in the northeastern insurgencies: ULFA military chief Paresh Barua -reportedly in Chittagong during the off-loading - and the NSCN's chief procurement officer Anthony Shimray, who is based in Manila but had flown into Bangladesh via Bangkok around the time of the shipment. The original idea, according to JIR sources, was to transport the munitions to northeastern India via a route across northern Myanmar's Kachin State. However, this idea was eventually shelved owing to security concerns over moving so large a shipment across territory where local Kachins were seen as pro-Indian.

The NSCN's regional operations have continued to run into difficulties. JIR has learned that in early July, several NSCN operatives believed to be travelling on Bangladeshi passports were detained at Jakarta international airport for carrying suspiciously large amounts of cash. Shimray, who was in the Indonesian capital at the same time, was reported to be making frantic efforts to engineer their swift release.

The presence of NSCN operatives in the Indonesian capital has puzzled intelligence analysts, as unlike Thailand and Cambodia, Indonesia is not generally known as a source of illicit small-arms.

The NSCN's regional forays, and in particular the Chittagong seizure, have raised concerns that the group may be considering a return to war. Peace talks in Bangkok and Amsterdam have made virtually no progress at all, largely due to the NSCN's insistence on the recognition by New Delhi of 'Nagalim' or a Greater Nagaland, which would embrace majority-Naga areas of the neighbouring state of Manipur, as well as smaller parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Given the unwillingness of these state governments to countenance any reduction of their current boundaries, negotiations could well founder over the issue of 'Nagalim'.

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