U.N. may extend eased Somalia arms embargo despite concerns: diplomats

UNITED NATIONS Wed Feb 19, 2014 5:01pm EST

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council is unlikely to fully restore a decades-old arms embargo on Somalia, despite concerns about the possible diversion of weapons to al Qaeda-linked militants, but may extend eased restrictions on government purchases, diplomats said.

A year ago, the 15-member council agreed to partially lift the arms embargo on Somalia, allowing the government in Mogadishu to buy light weapons to strengthen its security forces to fight Islamist groups.

However, a confidential U.N. monitors' report obtained by Reuters last week, warned of "systematic abuses" by Somalia's government - which the monitors say has allowed the diversion of weapons that Somali authorities purchased after the Security Council eased the arms embargo last year.

"Given the concerns about the way the suspension has been operated, we're thinking of ... continuing the suspension but for a more limited period with some very strict criteria," said a senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The eased restrictions are due to expire early next month. Instead of extending the move for another year, it may only be renewed until the end of October, which is when U.N. experts - who monitor the embargo and other sanctions on Somalia and Eritrea - are due to report to council on any violations.

"This is not because the international community thinks the Somali government is doing a good job in keeping track of its weapons. On the contrary," said a diplomatic source, adding that new conditions on the government could include further notification and reporting requirements on arms purchases.

The U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group recommended in its confidential report to the Security Council's sanctions committees last week that either the full arms embargo be restored or at least notification and reporting requirements related to arms deliveries be tightened.

'FINAL WARNING'

Somalia's government last year had asked for the arms embargo to be fully removed and the United States supported that, but other Security Council members were wary of doing that in a country already awash with weapons, diplomats said.

The senior diplomat said some Security Council members might "argue that (Somalia's government) had their chance and they blew it and we should re-impose the arms embargo." But he said a shorter extension of the eased restrictions, with tighter conditions, could be seen as a "final warning."

The Security Council imposed the embargo on Somalia in 1992 to cut the flow of weapons to feuding warlords, who a year earlier had ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged the country into civil war. Somalia held its first vote since 1991 in 2012 to elect a president and prime minister.

The eased restrictions allow sales to the government of such weapons as automatic assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but leave in place a ban on surface-to-air missiles, large-caliber guns, howitzers, cannons and mortars as well as anti-tank guided weapons, mines and night-vision weapon sights.

The U.N. resolution last year said weapons and equipment "may not be resold to, transferred to, or made available for use by, any individual or entity not in the service of the security forces of the federal government of Somalia."

It asked the Somalia government to report regularly on the structure of the security forces and the infrastructure and procedures in place to ensure safe storage, maintenance and distribution of military equipment.

There is a 17,600-strong African Union peacekeeping force and a U.N. political mission in the Horn of Africa country.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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