UNITED NATIONS (AP) Eritrea has courted Somalia's new leadership while maintaining close links to the country's network of warlords and other spoilers including at least two leaders of the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab, U.N. experts say.
In a report to the Security Council obtained late Thursday by the Associated Press, the panel of experts said Eritrea's continuing involvement in Somalia has taken place in a context of "emerging fissures within the security establishment" reflected in a failed military mutiny on Jan. 21 and high-profile defections from the civilian and military wings of the government.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki took power when the country broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a civil war that lasted three decades. His regime is considered repressing by rights groups for its crackdown on political dissidents, the closing of independent media and limits on civil liberties.
The report provides a window into the reclusive Horn of Africa nation which bars journalists and is under U.N. sanctions, including an arms embargo, for continuing to support al-Shabab and other armed groups trying to destabilize countries elsewhere in the region.
The panel, which monitors sanctions against Eritrea, said the fissures in the country's leadership stem from "growing discontent in government circles over Eritrea's international isolation, the arbitrary detention of thousands of prisoners and the opaque management of hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues obtained from mining production."
The panel said the high-level defections including three senior air force pilots, a top geologist and the minister of information "are taking place amid continuing waves of emigration of Eritrea's youth as well as defections from the ranks of national service conscripts, a vast number of which are required to serve indefinitely."
In addition, the panel said, senior government officials "have started to manifest open dissent to military and economic policy decision-making."
Eritrea previously coordinated much of the financing of Somali armed groups and other illicit activity from its embassy in Nairobi, Kenya but the panel said it "has now shifted and diversified such operations to Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Yemen in addition to fronting a number of business operations in these locations."
These intelligence and business networks "represent a significant external power base for president Afwerki to exploit," and enable the government "to execute any policy of regional destabilization, including providing support and assistance to al-Shabab," the panel said.
The report cited contacts between Eritrean officials and Somali warlords and al-Shabab leaders as well as violations of the arms embargo, including the government's purchase of a large number of decommissioned military vehicles and employment of foreign technical experts to maintain the country's key logistics base.
"The government of Eritrea has also imported civilian aircraft that have subsequently been used for military purposes," it said.
In a separate report on Somalia, the panel said al-Shabab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somalia, with an approximately 5,000-strong force controlling most of the country's central and southern areas and earning millions of dollars from exporting charcoal in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
The Eritrean government has strongly denied any links to al-Shabab or playing a negative role in Somalia and has called for U.N. sanctions to be lifted. A call to Eritrea's U.N. Mission seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Russia has blocked publication of the panel's annual report by the Security Council, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private.The panel said it "has obtained concrete evidence of dual-use equipment imported into Eritrea from China."