By Louis Charbonneau
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday gave the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia a seven-day extension while its 15 members weigh an African Union request to review a two-decade old arms embargo to help the government defeat Islamist rebels.
U.N. diplomats said that the council remained divided on the union's request to begin allowing the sale of arms to the Somali government. It is also split on calls to permit the export of stocks of charcoal, the Islamist al Shabaab rebels' principal source of funds, from the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.
"I expect the arms embargo may remain in place for the time being," a council diplomat said. "There's no consensus on lifting it." Other envoys said they would continue discussions.
The Security Council voted unanimously to extend the U.N. mandate of the African Union's AMISOM peacekeeping force, which was due to expire at the end of Wednesday, until November 7. Council diplomats said that they would prepare a resolution by next Wednesday that would extend the mandate for a full year.
Diplomats said they would use the next week to complete closed-door discussions on Somalia that were interrupted with the arrival on Monday of the superstorm Sandy, which brought power outages and chaos to much of Manhattan and caused flooding at U.N. headquarters along New York City's East River.
Due to flooding in the current Security Council chambers, Wednesday's meeting took place in a temporary container-like structure built to house parts of the U.N. secretariat and conference rooms during a years-long renovation of the main buildings due to finish in 2013.
The African Union has appealed to the council to review its arms embargo on Somalia to help the country rebuild its army and consolidate recent military gains against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab.
Somalia wants help strengthening its poorly equipped and often ill-disciplined military that is more of a loosely affiliated umbrella group of rival militias than a cohesive fighting force loyal to a single president.
The council imposed the embargo in 1992 to cut the flow of arms to feuding warlords, who a year later ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged Somalia into civil conflict.
CHARCOAL EXPORTS - A BURNING ISSUE
On Tuesday the African Union issued a statement saying that it "urges the Security Council to look into the issue of the large volume of charcoal found in ... Kismayu by AMISOM." It suggested the council approve an exemption for its export.
Envoys said Kenya also supports approving the sale of stocks of charcoal in the Somali city of Kismayu, which Kenyan forces under the umbrella of AMISOM took control of late last month, despite a U.N. ban on charcoal exports.
Diplomats said that the council was divided on the issue of the charcoal sales, with some countries fearing that the Kismayu merchants lobbying for the sale of the charcoal might still have connections with al Shabaab.
Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia a year ago to crush the militants whom it blamed for attacks and kidnappings on its soil. The Somali port city of Kismayu was al Shabaab's last major bastion before its forces were driven out.
Kenya has troops in Kismayu but has made clear it would like to avoid appearing like an occupation force. Diplomats said the Security Council might find it difficult to allow charcoal exports from Somalia at the moment.
"It's hard to imagine the council permitting the export of charcoal under the circumstances," a diplomat said. "Those who would benefit from the coal may still be funding al Shabaab."
Council diplomats said that the United States was among the countries that would agree to the export of the charcoal if the Somali government approved. But the Somali government has yet to back the idea, the envoys said.
"Negotiations are ongoing and we're closely consulting the Somalis and other regional partners," another diplomat said.
Some residents of Kismayu said that selling their stored charcoal was an urgent necessity.
"There is life and business when there is export and import," shopkeeper Ismail Sabdow told Reuters from Kismayu. "I believe the government ought to lift the ban on charcoal until people have other options."
The council banned the sale abroad of Somali charcoal in February in an attempt to cut off al Shabaab's funding.
According to the Security Council's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, an independent panel that reports on compliance with U.N. sanctions, charcoal exports from southern Somalia in 2011 generated over $25 million for al Shabaab.
The charcoal export ban was first suggested by the Monitoring Group and envoys said the panel has reservations about the idea of lifting it.
Faced with a military offensive by African Union and Somali forces, al Shabaab has pulled out of a number of urban strongholds in southern and central Somalia. They still hold sway over vast rural areas where the central government and regional administrations have minimal control.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Nairobi, Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)