Despite the high-profile rehearsals this week for the Shivaratri military parade on Tundikhel (above), the Royal Nepali Army seems to be feeling the pinch of the foreign arms embargo at a time when the Maoists look to be on an arms procurement spree. The RNA's main suppliers, India, UK and the US, suspended transfers of lethal hardware after 1 February 2005 and the army has tried to make cash purchases from alternative sources. However, the disclosure by an Indian minister to parliament in New Delhi Wednesday that Nepal had asked for a resumption of military aid shows the army\'s anxiety about weapons shortfalls. Meanwhile, the Maoists are now depending not just on weapons captured from the army but buying AK47s abroad.
Kalashnikovs and gunships
There is a serious risk of escalation
The RNA brass is increasingly concerned about an escalation of Maoist attacks since the end of the ceasefire as well as their threat to hit urban centres in the coming months.
So far, the army has been able to pinpoint the exact strength of the rebel force by calculating the number of guns they have looted from the security forces. But on 30 January the army showed video footage of an AK47 it says was captured from Maoists. It also recovered 9,000 rounds of AK47 ammunition in a major haul a few weeks ago in Chitre Bhanjyang, between Syangja and Kaski.
"We don't use AK47s so where did the Maoists get them from?" army spokesman Nepal Bhushan Chand asked. The suspicion is that the rebels have now started procuring assault rifles from Kashmir and the Indian northeast. The rebels also appear to have far too much ammunition for their captured Indian INSAS rifles than they would have got from raids on army bases.
The AK47 bullets did not have any mark of origin but it is suspected they are from a former Soviet bloc country. Army sources say the guns are being smuggled through Rudrapur in the Indian state of Uttaranchal and through jungle corridors along the border between Banke and Bardia into the western hills.
"We know that the arms including AK47s are carried by bicycles from Rudrapur to Thaplyalkhada in Kanchanpur, mostly at night," another top security official told us, "the guns are stored in a place called Chhap and then transported to other districts using Indian-plated trucks."
If it knows all this, why isn't the army stopping it? A senior police official in the midwestern region told us the police doesn't have the strength to counter the smugglers. "These are notorious gangsters we can't match them," he says. Local journalists who have reported on the arms smuggling in the past have been threatened. "We get anonymous calls warning us not to poke our noses into it," a Kanchanpur-based reporter told us.
Security agencies believe crossborder arms traders are now very active in Nepal and could possibly be working as double agents supplying arms to the rebels and selling information to the army as well. But the army says the information is usually too late.
The army did capture a huge haul of weapons, explosives and Indian-made detonators nearby the Kosi Barrage in January and two weeks ago it caught a group of Maoists with AK47 rifles in Nawalparasi. That was when the alarm bells started ringing.
"We have an AK47 even in our flag, we have been buying the rifles as and when necessary," admitted Maoist former Central Committee member, Comrade Athak in a phone interview. But he refused to say where the guns were bought.
The Maoists have said they are now more than a match for the army but admit they are still vulnerable to aerial bombardment. The RNA has turned some of its helicopters into gunships and used them with devastating effect, strafing from machine guns on sidemounted pods. Its nightvision-equipped Mi-17s are also used during Maoist attacks to drop mortar rounds on suspected rebel positions. But such attacks have often hit village houses and killed civilians as it did during a major battle near Phaparbari in Makwanpur in January. (See: 'Targeted', #284)
There are fears of further escalation following Prachanda's order to his warriors earlier this month to shoot down army helicopters. Military sources said they are aware the rebels are trying to buy anti-aircraft guns and used improvised GPMGs during recent attacks in Tansen and Panauti to try to bring down helicopters.
Asked how they would counter this, a security source told us: "We will go Tora Bora style, but we will do it carefully considering the safety of civilians and risk to helicopters from ground fire."
'Tora Bora' is the RNA slang for drums laden with explosives dropped from helicopters. Human rights organisations say they are worried about a serious rise in civilian casualties if the war enters a more intense and indiscriminate aerial phase.
When asked, army brass wouldn't comment directly on whether the arms embargo was hurting combat readiness. But aside from the $ 890,000 worth of ammunition and grenades from China in December, there hasn't been any major replenishment in the past year. The army's field sources told us they have been economising on ammunition use and ammunition factories in Makwanpur and Sundarijal have increased production.
The army got some supplies from Pakistan and was all set to buy arms from Israel that had previously sold Galil rifles to the RNA's paratroopers, but Indian pressure prompted Israel to scrap the deal. A source close to the issue said India and Israel had "great relations, especially in defence-related matters".