By C. Bryson Hull
NAIROBI, July 13 (Reuters) - Lifting a United Nations arms embargo to allow foreign peacekeepers into Somalia could thrust the nation into new violence and further inflame a deep split in its fledgling government, an influential think tank has warned.
The United Nations is on Thursday due to consider an African Union request to exempt a regional peacekeeping force from a 1992 arms embargo, so it can bring weapons into the Horn of Africa nation and protect Somalia's transitional government.
"Lifting it for any reason at this critical time risks destabilising the transitional institutions, derailing the peace process and rekindling civil conflict," International Crisis Group (ICG) president Gareth Evans wrote in a letter to the Security Council released late on Tuesday.
ICG said a peacekeeping force could be helpful later, but it was premature now given the circumstances.
Tensions in Somalia have risen sharply in recent weeks with Monday's assassination of a top peace activist, new military preparations and angry words by the two government factions.
The government last month went home from Kenya, where it was formed at peace talks last year, and the two factions are barely talking after failing to resolve a rift over their relocation.
"These differences have the potential to cause rapid and dangerous deterioration of the already fragile situation in Somalia," said a statement from the international members of the Coordination and Monitoring Committee.
The group of donors, U.N. agencies and interested parties condemned the Mogadishu killing and urged both sides to begin immediate talks.
This government is the 14th attempt to return a central authority there since warlords ousted military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and ushered in an era of anarchy.
Granting an exemption to the arms embargo would strike at the heart of one of two issues that have riven the government: foreign peacekeepers and a dispute over where it would make its initial home after relocating from Kenya.
Though the embargo has been in force since 1992, it has had no practical effect -- with the exception of barring the deployment of the AU-backed peacekeeping mission that would initially draw troops from Uganda and Sudan.
Arms move freely past Somalia's lawless borders and all manner of weapons from pistols to rocket launchers are sold openly at the notorious Bakaara market in Mogadishu.
Western diplomats say they do not expect the Security Council to act, and even if it did, the United States has made clear it would oppose the effort and use its veto if necessary.
Since the government has never given a unified position about foreign troops, the U.N. is unlikely to act now, one diplomat said. "There's a question of legality out there and it needs to be sorted out first."
President Abdullahi Yusuf's request for foreign troops is so divisive that it led to a fistfight during a parliamentary vote against their deployment in March. A subsequent vote led by Yusuf's allies approved them, but neither side has accepted either vote as legal.
One faction of MPs and ministers, including powerful warlords in Yusuf's cabinet opposed to foreign troops, are in Mogadishu and insist it must be the capital as stipulated by the charter guiding the peace process.
But Yusuf and his allies say militia-plagued Mogadishu must be pacified before they return there and have made their base in Jowhar, 90 km (56 miles) to the north.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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