BANGUI, 8 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Ex-combatants began voluntarily handing over their weapons to UN and government officials on Friday in the Central African Republic's northwestern district of Nana-Grébizi.
The measure is part of a nationwide effort begun on 18 June to disarm and reintegrate thousands of ex-combatant into civilian life.
"If there's a gap between the disarmament and the start of reintegration, the ex-combatants will loose confidence and violence might return," Jonas Mfouatie, the UN Development Programme's (UNDP) chief technical adviser on reintegration of ex-combatants, said on Wednesday.
The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme is being run by UNDP. The agency has contributed US $1.25 million mainly for the disarmament, while the World Bank is funding $9.77 million specifically for reintegration and community support.
In the country's capital, Bangui, 733 ex-combatants have so far been demobilised including 314 women, with 181 of them already reintegrated, Mfouatie said.
"We intend to absorb around two thousand of the present caseload by end of August," he said.
In Nana-Grébizi, he added, there were many ex-fighters and officials had already identified 300 of them. He said the area was an entry point for troops of the country's recently-elected president, Francois Bozize, when they invaded from Chad and in March 2003 overthrew former President Ange-Felix Pattase.
Various armed groups also occupy other parts of the CAR, a country that has experienced years of political instability and conflict.
The exact number of small arms in the country remains unknown. "The government, which claims that 50,000 small arms are circulating nationally beyond its control, may be underestimating the scale of the problem," according a 2005 Small Arms Survey, published by the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva.
It said attempts to disarm combatants in the past had scored limited success.
In the UNDP's latest effort, relatively few weapons have so far been handed over. Mfouatie said as of June 30, 137 light weapons of different calibres, 14,652 pieces of various munitions, 149 shells and 116 grenades had been collected.
One ex-combatant, who requested anonymity, told IRIN on Saturday that in the provincial town of Bossangoa, which was the scene of intense fighting in 2002 and 2003, many of his peers were still unwilling to give up their guns.
"You see a town like this where fighting took place; all we collected there was two weapons," Mfouatie said.
There are various explanations for their reluctance. One is that officials in previous DDR programmes made promises that they could not kept, Come Zoumara, the coordinator for DDR at the Office of The President, said.
"To create trust is not easy. The head of state must [now] take a decision to reassure ex-combatants that if they should surrender all their weapons they would be free and protected," Zoumara said.
However, Mfouatie gives another reason for the low number of weapons being collected. "Seventy-five percent of the ex-combatants who are to undergo demobilisation and reintegration have already been disarmed," he said.
Still, he said, the current DRR programme needed to progress rapidly to ensure that ex-combatants were not frustrated. "Most of [the ex-combatants] want to reintegrate," Mfouatie said. "We want to avoid the gap between disarmament and the start of reintegration."
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