(Corrects headline, first four paras and para 10 to reflect corrected quotes)
* Somali president originally fully backed ban
* Residents, officials say charcoal is being loaded onto ships
* U.N. diplomats fear funds still flowing to al Shabaab
By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGADISHU, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Somalia’s president has softened his stance on what to do about millions of sacks of charcoal stockpiled in former rebel strongholds, opening the door to possible charcoal exports despite a U.N. embargo on the trade.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud three weeks ago fully backed a U.N. ban imposed in February aimed at cutting off funds to Islamist militants, but appeared to be looking for options that might allow at least existing stocks to be sold.
“We want to get two things at once: not cutting trees and save the wealth of the Somalis who invested in the ready charcoal. We do not want them to lose their wealth,” Mohamud told reporters late on Wednesday.
“Bringing together those two extremes needs intelligence. We do not want to request the U.N. to lift the ban on charcoal if that will lead to cutting of new trees for charcoal.”
Residents and regional officials said charcoal was already being loaded onto ships at the southern port of Kismayu, al Shabaab’s last major urban redoubt which it lost to African peacekeepers and forces loyal to Mogadishu six weeks ago.
Some Kismayu residents say that during al Shabaab’s four-year rule over the city charcoal became an important driver of the local economy, which had become largely crippled by more than two decades of civil conflict.
The charcoal - an estimated three to five million sacks worth tens of millions of dollars - has become a growing source of tension for Mohamud, who is trying to extend his new government’s authority beyond the capital and stabilise the south.
The Security Council’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, an independent panel that reports on compliance with U.N. sanctions, says charcoal exports from southern Somalia in 2011 generated over $25 million for al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab.
Security Council diplomats have said the council is divided on the issue. Envoys say some countries fear the Kismayu merchants lobbying for the sale of the charcoal may still have connections to al Shabaab; Washington has indicated it would agree to the charcoal exports if the Somali government approved.
U.N. sanctions regimes allow for the possibility of exemptions. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Lough)