Iran and Syria supplied Somali Islamists with arms, says UN

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A UN-commissioned report has accused 10 countries, including Iran and Syria, of breaking an arms embargo on Somalia amid fears that the conflict could spill across the Horn of Africa.

In all, seven countries were accused of providing military support, including weapons and personnel, to the Islamic militia which control most of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu. Three countries - Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen - were accused of backing the fragile, UN-recognised transitional government.

The report also claimed that 720 Somali Islamists had fought in Lebanon alongside Hizbollah during the war with Israel. Syria is accused of sending an aircraft loaded with guns to Mogadishu, while Iran is believed to have sent three shipments of weapons between July and September.

Djibouti, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have used Eritrea to funnel aid to the Islamists, it went on. The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia dismissed the report as a "fabrication".

But arms shipments have not been one-sided. Ethiopia, which is estimated to have some 6,000 troops already in Somalia, is also believed to have brought in tanks and surface-to-air missiles.

In a move that is sure to further inflame tensions between the government and the UIC, UN diplomats are discussing a plan from the African Union (AU) and the East African regional body, IGAD, to deploy peacekeepers in support of the beleaguered transitional government based in Baidoa. The UIC has consistently opposed international peacekeepers being sent to Somalia. Senior UIC members have vowed to lead a "jihad" against foreign troops.

Under the proposed protection plan, a single battalion of Ugandan troops, working under an AU mandate, would shore up the government's base in Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu. The intention would be for them to replace Ethiopian troops.

EthiopiaÕs prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has only admitted to "a few hundred" Ethiopian "military advisors" in Somalia.

The Somali arms embargo has been notoriously hard to police. Somalia has had no functioning central government since the military dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991.

Predominantly Christian Ethiopia fears the presence of an Islamic state, some of whose leaders are suspected of links with Al Qa-ida, on its borders. But Ethiopia's presence in Somalia has angered ordinary Somalis. One of the few things which unites Somalis is a distrust of Ethiopia.

The presence of AU peacekeepers would remove the Ethiopians' stated objective for being in Somalia and provide a face-saving retreat. Diplomats, however, do not expect Ethiopia to leave.

Hopes of avoiding a war have all but evaporated. Three rounds of peace talks, held in Khartoum, fell apart at the start of the month with neither side even willing to be on the same floor of the luxury hotel the talks were due to be held in, let alone the same room.