By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council extended an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia for four months on Wednesday as it mulls lifting an arms embargo and Uganda threatens to pull out troops over claims it is aiding rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo.
The African Union has appealed to the 15-member council to review its arms embargo to help Somalia rebuild its army and consolidate military gains against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab. U.N. diplomats said the council was split over this request.
The council extended the AMISOM peacekeeping mission for four months, instead of the usual 12, to allow for a review of operations, including consideration of the arms embargo request and a call to permit the export of stocks of charcoal.
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. It banned the sale abroad of Somali charcoal in February this year in an attempt to cut off al Shabaab's funding.
A deadly car bomb exploded on Wednesday near the country's parliament building in the capital Mogadishu, police said. While it was not clear who was responsible, Mogadishu has frequently been targeted by al Shabaab.
"The situation in Somalia is changing rapidly. We have a more legitimate political leadership than ever before," British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the Security Council. "But, as today's deplorable attack on Parliament shows, the situation remains perilous."
He acknowledged the African Union request for the arms embargo to be lifted, but gave no indication of how Britain would respond.
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.
There are 17,600 U.N.-mandated peacekeepers helping battle the Islamist rebels in Somalia. Ugandan troops make up more than a third of those peacekeepers, but they have threatened to withdraw in protest over accusations made in a U.N. report.
Uganda and Rwanda have denied claims in a leaked U.N. Group of Experts report which said the two neighbors were arming Congo's M23 rebels, whose warlord leader has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
In the confidential report, which was seen in full by Reuters, the experts called for sanctions on those who violated an arms embargo.
Although Uganda has publicly stated its threat to withdraw troops from peacekeeping missions unless the report is changed, U.N. Security Council diplomats said a Ugandan delegation that came to New York last week did not formally raise it with council members, U.N. officials, the AU or Somalia.
Council diplomats told Reuters that the experts' report would most likely not be amended.
Diplomats have also said that the council was divided on the issue of the charcoal sales. Some countries fear that charcoal merchants in the Somali city of Kismayu - which Kenyan forces under the umbrella of AMISOM took control of last month - might still have connections with al Shabaab.
In September, Somalia inaugurated President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud - elected in the first vote of its kind since 1991, when Barre was ousted by the warlords, leaving the African nation without an effective central government.
It unveiled a new Cabinet on Sunday, keeping a delicate balance among rival clans.
"We must allow the new government the space to set policies and priorities," Britain's Lyall Grant said. "After two decades of despair, Somalia's people at last have hope and the Security Council must do all that it can to turn hope into reality."
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jackie Frank and Stacey Joyce)