By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A proposal to lift a U.N. arms embargo on the Somalian government for a year but leave in place restrictions on weapons like surface-to-air missiles has been floated among a deeply split 15-member U.N. Security Council, diplomats said on Wednesday.
The Somali government has requested that the 21-year-old arms embargo be lifted so it can strengthen its poorly equipped, ill-disciplined military - more a group of rival militias than a cohesive fighting force loyal to a single president - to battle al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebels.
A draft resolution to renew a U.N.-mandated African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, reconfigure the U.N. mission and decide on the arms embargo request is likely to be circulated among Security Council members this week, diplomats said.
The Security Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution next Wednesday before the mandate of the 17,600-strong AU peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, expires the next day, March 7.
"What we may see is a lifting for a defined period ... as far as the government itself is concerned but with some caveats," said a council diplomat. "For example, excluding some types of equipment, which would continue to be embargoed."
He said the proposed defined period could be a year.
The United States has been urging council members to agree to demands by the government in Mogadishu for the embargo to be lifted, while Britain and France were reluctant, council diplomats said. Negotiations were ongoing, they said.
The Security Council imposed the embargo in 1992 to cut the flow of arms to feuding warlords, who a year earlier ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged Somalia into civil war. The country last year held its first national vote since 1991 to elect a president and prime minister.
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"It sends shivers down the spine," one council diplomat said of the proposal to lift the embargo. "This move would come with significant security risks and would set a deplorable precedent as the situation is still extremely volatile."
He said the current embargo provided sufficient exemptions for the Somali security forces to be properly equipped and that the council was very divided over the issue.
Another U.N. diplomat said the Security Council's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, an independent panel that reports on compliance with U.N. sanctions, had reported that some al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants had infiltrated units of the Somali security forces.
U.N. monitors have also warned that the Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa nation are receiving weapons from distribution networks linked to Yemen and Iran, diplomats have told Reuters.
"There's a good argument for sending a strong signal that Somalia now has a government that is increasingly establishing itself as a proper government ... but on the other hand of course there is continuing concern about security," a council diplomat said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month that the council should consider lifting the arms embargo to help rebuild Somalia's security forces and consolidate military gains against al Shabaab militants.
AU troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia are battling al Shabaab militants on several fronts in Somalia and have forced them to abandon significant territory in southern and central areas of the Horn of Africa country.
The militants, who merged with al Qaeda in February last year, launched their campaign against the government in early 2007, seeking to impose sharia, or strict Islamic law, on the entire country.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)