|Light and medium arms are seeing a huge increase in sales in the black markets of Lebanon, who are selling weapons to not only Syrians, but also resident Lebanese fearful of a spillover of violence [EPA]
As the Syrian uprisings escalate in violence, Lebanon's black market in arms is flourishing, with prices of light and medium weapons driven higher by Lebanese and Syrian demand.
"Prices have tripled in less than two months," says Wael, a local arms dealer, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
According to local dealers, Syrians have been crossing the borders into neighbouring Lebanon to purchase weapons since late January, when the country erupted with pro-democracy protests which were subject to bloody government crackdown.
Lebanese residents, fearing Syria's wave of violence may spread, have also started to buy light weapons.
Since the start of the uprisings, dozens of soldiers and hundreds of civilians have been killed - with activists putting the total deaths at about 800.
Syrian authorities, however, have blamed the unrest on "armed gangs", Salafi groups and a Western conspiracy. 'SANA', Syria's official news agency, quoted a military source recently, saying that the army and security units are continuing to chase "armed terrorist groups".
"On Wednesday, tens of the groups' members seized a huge amount of weapons and varied ammunition in Baba Amr in the Homs province and Deraa countryside. Two military members were martyred and five others were injured in the clashes," the publication printed on its website.
Activists have denied buying weapons, blaming the military deaths on members of the secret intelligence services, who have been allegedly gunning down soldiers refusing to shoot at protesters.
"We are not armed. This is nonsense," one Syrian activist said, on condition of anonymity.
The broader Syrian picture remains murky amid accusations and counter-accusations in the absence of media coverage, as most foreign journalists are banned from the country. But in neighbouring Lebanon, arms dealers are pointing out that many Syrians are purchasing weapons for self-defence. They also admit that some weapons sales seem part of a concerted and more structured effort.
"It is, however, extremely difficult to know what segment of society these buyers represent, as they keep their identity a secret," Wael explained.
"Locals are also buying weapons in fear of rising sectarian tensions, as a result from the destabilisation of the [Bashar] Assad regime," says Brahim, another local weapons dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Although who exactly is behind the buying is unclear, the rising prices of various weapons indicate there is indeed an increased demand.
On the streets of Beirut, the price of an AK-47 assault rifle jumped from 850 dollars to 1,450; while an M4, sold previously for 5,800 dollars, is now 7,500. An M16 rifle now costs 2,500 dollars - a 50 per cent hike from its former price tag. The M16 is a US army standard service rifle, which was used during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, US Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan used the M4 carbine as a front-line weapon.
The PKC machine gun is now 4,200 dollars, up from 3,300 in only a few months. The American made 'Energa', a single shot grenade launcher, was previously 80 dollars and is now 350. The asking price of a B7 rifle went from 700 dollars to 1,000.
"The price of a Kalashnikov, which varied between 1,000 dollars to 1,200 dollars only a few months ago, is now being sold for 1,600 dollars in Beirut and 2,000 dollars in Tripoli. The cost of ammunition has also dramatically increased," says Brahim.
Since the end of the Civil War in 1990, instability in Lebanon has translated into big bucks for local arms dealers. According to Brahim and Wael, the market is controlled by prominent political parties who use their clout and wide network of allies to protect smugglers from prosecution. Each political party relies generally on one main buyer, someone who has all the necessary contacts abroad and knows the ins and outs of the business.
Brahim admits that weapons shipments to Lebanon have increased significantly in recent months and are traditionally smuggled into the country from Iraq and Syria though Lebanon's porous border.
"It seems that in light of recent regional events, Lebanese political parties have decided to allow the trade of light and medium weapons while they put a ban on the sale of heavier fire arms, such as cannons and rockets," says Wael.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Services news agency.