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Kalashnikov Inventor Laments Proliferation

June 11, 2006 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ Mikhail Kalashnikov says he designed the assault rifle that bears his name to fend off the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

But six decades later, he laments its transformation into the worldwide weapon of choice for terrorists and gangsters.

``Whenever I look at TV and I see the weapon I invented to defend my motherland in the hands of these bin Ladens I ask myself the same question: How did it get into their hands?″ the 86-year-old Russian gun maker said.

``I didn’t put it in the hands of bandits and terrorists and it’s not my fault that it has mushroomed uncontrollably across the globe. Can I be blamed that they consider it the most reliable weapon?″ he said.

The question is especially acute as an 11-day U.N. conference on curbing the small-arms trade convenes June 26 in New York. Kalashnikov is thinking of sending the delegates a statement.

Sturdy, simple and cheap, firing 600 bullets a minute, the world’s estimated 100 million Kalashnikovs account for up to 80 percent of all assault rifles. In Africa’s civil conflicts or in violence-ridden Latin American nations, it sells for as little as $15.

Its genesis dates to 1941, when Kalashnikov was in a hospital with severe wounds from a German shell that hit his tank in the battle of Bryansk in western Russia.

Thinking about the Soviet forces’ inferiority due to their lack of an automatic weapon, he says he had a brainstorm one night and jotted down a rough design which he worked on for much of the next six months, assisted by Red Army colleagues.

They worked ``in a burst of enthusiasm, out of a huge desire to make a contribution to victory over the fascist invaders,″ recalled Kalashnikov in a postal and e-mail exchange with The Associated Press.

It would become the Kalashnikov, also called the AK-47, for the year the design was completed. Two years later it became standard issue for the Soviet army.

It came too late for service in World War II, but it earned its reputation in the Cold War that followed, exported by the Soviet Union to arm Third World allies and insurgents.

It proved ideal for desert and jungle _ easily assembled and able to keep firing in sandy or wet conditions that would jam a U.S-made M-16.

The Soviet Union is dead, but the Kalashnikov’s empire thrives. Updated models _ AK-74, AK-101, AK-103 _ are manufactured in Russia. The AK-74 is produced by than a dozen other countries and is used by the armed forces of more than 50 countries as well as militant groups.

It’s seen in Osama bin Laden’s videotapes and on the flags of Mozambique and the Hezbollah fighters of Lebanon.

``We sold the weapons to some countries for a symbolic price or even for nothing, with the aim of assisting national liberation struggles. Of course, this meant the Kalashnikov became available around the world,″ the designer said.

Today, it’s the first piece of technology many children in conflict zones will encounter. Boy soldiers routinely carry Kalashnikovs.

It has also come back to haunt the modern Russian army. In the war in Chechnya, both sides wield Kalashnikovs.

Viktor Myasnikov, a defense commentator from Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, says many imitations are produced in Africa or delivered from former Soviet bloc countries as well as China and Egypt.

At the U.N conference, human rights groups will push for an international treaty banning the export of small arms and other conventional weapons to countries where they are likely to be used to trample human rights.

Kalashnikov said Amnesty International and Oxfam, the British charity, have asked him to write a statement for their campaign against small-arms proliferation, and he is also thinking of sending a separate statement addressed to the U.N conference.

Izhmash, the company in the central Russian city of Izhevsk that manufactures Russia’s updated Kalashnikovs, refuses to give production numbers or name customers, but Myasnikov, the military expert, says that it has been only in the thousands each year, exported to Latin American and Middle East police forces. But a Venezuelan order for 100,000 Kalashnikovs has hugely boosted production this year.

Kalashnikov, despite his advanced age, is still chief designer of the state-controlled company.

He says he never made a kopeck in royalties because his invention was never patented.

``At that time, patenting inventions wasn’t an issue in our country. We worked for socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret,″ he said.

He’s also proud that last year, the Kremlin Armory added a collection of Kalashnikovs to its permanent exhibit of Russian weaponry, and that U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam and in Iraq have compared the rugged Kalashnikov favorably with the M-16.