By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Eritrea is undermining stability in conflict-ravaged Somalia by paying political agents and a warlord linked to Islamist militants to influence the Mogadishu government, U.N. sanctions experts said in a confidential report.
The Eritrean government has long denied playing any negative role in Somalia, saying it has no links to Islamist al Shabaab militants fighting to overthrow the Somali government. It says the U.N. sanctions imposed on it in 2009 for supporting al Shabaab were based on lies and has called for the sanctions to be lifted.
The latest annual report by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea to the Security Council's Somalia/Eritrea sanctions committee casts fresh doubt on Asmara's denials, undermining its case for lifting the sanctions against it.
"The Monitoring Group has received numerous reports about the warming of relations between Asmara and Mogadishu, and has obtained evidence of Asmara's control of political agents close to the Somali presidency and some of the individual spoilers," the group said in the report, seen by Reuters.
One such operative, the monitors said, is "Eritrean agent of influence Abdi Nur Siad 'Abdi Wal,' ... who is reported to have a close relationship with a senior al Shabaab commander."
The monitors describe Abdi Wal as a "warlord."
"Abdi Wal is now a close ally of former ARS-Asmara (a Somali Islamist network in Eritrea) leader Zakaria Mohamed Haji Abdi, for whom he provides security in Mogadishu," the monitors said. "He is known to command the allegiance of about 100 fighters in Mogadishu and is involved in contract killings."
The monitors said in their report that they have "obtained direct testimonies and concrete evidence of Eritrean support to Abdi Wal and Mohamed Wali Sheikh Ahmed Nuur." The Monitoring Group has reported on Ahmed Nuur in the past, describing him as a "political coordinator for al Shabaab" and a recipient of funds from Eritrea.
"A source on the Eritrean payroll in direct contact with Abdi Wal has confirmed that Abdi Wal has admitted in closed-door meetings that he is acting as an agent for the Eritrean government," the group said in its latest report.
Eritrea's U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.
RUSSIAN AND ITALIAN COMPLAINTS
The latest report said that Ahmed Nuur, also known as Ugas Mohamed Wali Sheikh, has repeatedly held meetings in Khartoum with Mohamed Mantai, Eritrea's ambassador to Sudan and, since December, Iran.
"During these meetings, options for Eritrean financial support to Ahmed Nuur were discussed," the report said.
"Mantai, a former military intelligence officer, has a history of operating in Somalia and was expelled from Kenya in 2009 after he returned from Somalia following meetings with al Shabaab agents," the monitors said.
In addition to their nearly 500-page report on Somalia and Eritrea, the Monitoring Group produced a separate report of around 80 pages focusing solely on Eritrea.
Council diplomats said the longer Somalia/Eritrea report will be made public soon, but the shorter Eritrea report will not be published because of Russian objections.
According to a letter the Russian delegation sent to Ambassador Kim Sook, chairman of the Somalia/Eritrea sanctions committee, Russia "objects to the publication of the (Eritrea) report due to the biased and groundless conclusions and recommendations contained in it."
Italian Ambassador Cesare Maria Ragaglini also wrote to Kim complaining about the report because of "misleading information and undocumented implications of violations of the arms embargo." Reuters has obtained both letters.
According to diplomats familiar with the U.N. monitors' shorter Eritrea report, an Italian helicopter exported to Eritrea for mining survey purposes was seen at a military facility there, raising the possibility of a sanctions breach.
The monitors said Italian authorities failed to provide additional information as requested, the diplomats added.
Ragaglini dismissed that allegation, saying "we did provide the information they requested (e.g. on financial flows), but there is no evidence whatsoever of military assistance from Italy to sustain the undocumented claims of the experts."
China, diplomats say, is annoyed about references in the Eritrea report to Chinese machine tools procured for a large government depot in Eritrea that houses tanks, missiles and dual-use civilian trucks. But the envoys said there was no suggestion the Chinese government was violating U.N. sanctions.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)