UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Illegal exports of Somali charcoal earned al Shabaab militants tens of millions of dollars in the past year and also financed violations of an arms embargo by clan-based militia that could fuel warlord tensions, U.N. investigators said in a new report.
The Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group, which oversees compliance with U.N. sanctions on the two countries, said it had counted 161 vessels exporting charcoal from Somalia's southern ports of Kismayu and Barawe between June 2013 and May 2014.
The U.N. Security Council banned charcoal exports from Somalia in February 2012 in a bid to cut off funds for al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated group that has been fighting for control of Somalia for years and enforces strict sharia law in areas it occupies.
"The total international market value of charcoal exported in 2013 and 2014 can be estimated as upwards of $250 million and could be much more, given that the Group may not have identified all shipments," the monitors said in a confidential 482-page annual report, seen by Reuters on Friday.
"The scale of the international trade in Somali charcoal is largely consistent with its previous findings," it said.
A third of the 161 shipments were in the names of two businessmen linked to al Shabaab, said the monitoring group, and the cargos were primarily destined for the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait.
Between June 2013 and January 2014 the group said charcoal was mainly exported from Kismayu and Barawe and since January shipments were primarily made from Kismayu where port operations are supervised by the Ras Kamboni militia and the Kenyan army, which is part of an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.
The Kenyan military has denied allegations by the U.N. monitors that it aided illegal charcoal exports.
"The Monitoring Group has obtained information that, while businessmen linked to al Shabaab ... continue to trade in charcoal freely, charcoal proceeds have also helped to finance the purchase of military vehicles by Ras Kamboni," it said.
The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 to cut the flow of weapons to feuding warlords, who had ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged the country into civil war. Somalia held its first vote since 1991 in 2012 to elect a president and prime minister.
"The import of vehicles, in violation of the arms embargo, is an example of how the unchecked scramble for charcoal revenue has contributed to the arming of the environment, which is likely to contribute more to historical clan tensions relating to the control of Kismayu," the monitors said.
Dozens of people were killed last year when clan leader Barre Hirale's forces battled for control of Kismayu from Ras Kamboni loyal to Ahmed Madobe, who was chosen by a regional assembly to preside over the surrounding Jubbaland region.
Hirale laid down arms and joined reconciliation talks in August.
The U.N. monitors said al Shabaab had shifted most of its exports to Kismayu earlier this year to "disguise the operations of those traders working most closely with al Shabaab in Barawe." But this week military strikes drove al Shabaab out of Barawe, their last major coastal stronghold.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown