SINAI, Egypt, Dec 15 (Marwa Awad/Reuters) - Sitting cross-legged in the desert darkness, a 44-year-old Bedouin tribesman was describing how he smuggles weapons across Egypt's Sinai desert to the Gaza Strip
when a heavily laden four-wheel drive vehicle pulled up.
The latest deal just arrived from Sudan, come and see, said 'Aref' the smuggler, rising to greet the driver, who shut off the headlights that had briefly pierced the moonless night.
These are 80 Kalashnikovs, said Aref, flinging open the trunk to reveal the stacked assault rifles, gleaming dimly in the flashlight held by his Bedouin assistant. We will bury this shipment in the desert until we find a buyer.
Arms smuggling by Bedouin tribal networks, mainly by land along Egypt's southern border with Sudan, across the Sinai peninsula and into the Hamas
-run Gaza Strip is on the uptick, according to an Egyptian official, who asked not to be named.
Sudan denies that it allows any kind of weapons shipments across its territory to any destination.
Egyptian officials have said the smuggling is still not widespread and Bedouin own weapons as part of their culture, in which they bestow status, but such arms were not broadly traded.
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, however, point to concerns that Iran was sending arms to Hamas via Sudan and Egypt. An April 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Cairo said Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adli was behind steps to disrupt the flow of Iranian-supplied arms from Sudan through Egypt to Gaza.
The growing scale of the lucrative trade could threaten stability in Sinai, whose Bedouin tribesmen complain they are marginalised and benefit little from the tourists who flock to Sharm el-Sheikh and other resorts on the peninsula's coasts.
Sinai suffers a security imbalance, military analyst Safwat Zayaat said. Under-development is fuelling the arms trade fed by unstable neighbouring areas in northeast Sudan.
He said there was a ready market for weapons smuggled via a network of border tunnels into the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas since 2007.
This is a concern for Israel
, which has frequently complained about Egypt's failure to stop the arms transfers.
Yet the terms of Camp David accords signed by Egypt and Israel in 1978 help explain why it is so hard for the Egyptians to police their borders and maintain control in Sinai, where well-armed Bedouin occasionally clash with security forces.
The accords, signed by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, demilitarised central Sinai and allowed Egypt to deploy only a small number of lightly armed border guards there and on the 266-km (166-mile) frontier.
After Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Egypt proposed raising the number to 3,500 to help it secure its border with the Gaza Strip. Israel refused, citing security concerns.
Camp David demands that Sinai is largely demilitarised, Zayaat said. Security lapses related to human trafficking across the Egypt-Israel border or the inability to stem arms and drug smuggling within Sinai and into Gaza occur as a result.
Sinai's border with Israel is a main trafficking route for thousands of African migrants seeking asylum in Israel. Israel has criticised Egypt for not doing enough to stem the flow.
Under Israeli pressure to secure the frontier, Egyptian police have used tough tactics including shooting migrants on sight. They have also had shootouts with Bedouin smugglers who ferry migrants across the border for about $1,000 per person.
Israel began work in November on a 266-km (166-mile) border fence with Egypt to block the flow of African migrants.
There is little hard evidence of Bedouin involvement in Islamist violence, although in 2004 and 2005 the Egyptian government rounded up about 5,000 Bedouin in security sweeps after a string of bomb attacks in Red Sea resorts.
Aref, the Bedouin smuggler, who would not give his real name, said arbitrary arrests and unfulfilled promises of economic opportunity only encouraged tribesmen to acquire guns.
Every Bedouin owns a weapon and in the past few months some have used theirs against heavy-handed security forces, he said, adding that the smugglers were not motivated by ideology, but that owning weapons was part of a Bedouin's honour code.
His assistant, who asked not to be named, said the smuggling route began in the Kassala region of eastern Sudan. Sudanese tribesmen transport the arms 700 km (440 miles) to the Egyptian border. Sinai Bedouin collect them there and take them north as far as the Suez Canal, a bottleneck for any smuggling route.
The journey takes at least 15 days, said Aref's aide. He named Sudan's Rashaida tribe as main suppliers to the Sawarka Bedouin, one of two tribes that control the Sinai arms market.
Bedouin tribes that lie along the chosen route secure the shipment's passage from point to point, each tribe receiving its share of arms or cash, he added. Shipments range from assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to anti-aircraft guns.
In March 2009, CBS News reported that an Israeli aircraft had attacked an arms smuggling convoy in Sudan two months earlier, killing more than 30 people, to stop it reaching Hamas in Gaza.
Cables published by the WikiLeaks website also point up the security vacuum in parts of Sinai.
A Sinai-based official, cited in a December 2009 memo, said: Bedouin control central Sinai because they are better armed than the Egyptian military.
Asked about the Sinai weapons trade, another senior security official in Cairo who previously served with the army in Sinai and requested anonymity said it would be impractical for smugglers to use Sudan as a conduit and said Egypt had tight control of border areas.
Our Egypt-Gaza border is safe and under control, he said. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)