By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. experts warn that plans by Somalia's breakaway enclave Somaliland to deploy special forces to protect foreign oil companies could worsen conflicts in the long unstable Horn of Africa.
A confidential May 27 letter to the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on Somalia and Eritrea, obtained by Reuters on Friday, recommends the panel consider whether the planned armed unit could be viable or not.
"The deployment of an Oil Protection Unit could play into internal and regional conflicts that appear to be brewing within Somaliland and between Somaliland and other regional authorities, if its deployment is not handled carefully or accompanied by mitigating measures," the coordinator of the expert monitoring group, Jarat Chopra, wrote.
The experts, who monitor sanctions violations, said in July that Western commercial oil exploration in disputed areas and discrepancies over which authorities can issue licenses to companies could cause more fighting in Somalia.
Chopra's letter repeated that "legal and constitutional discrepancies in respect of oil licensing throughout Somalia have opened the door for potential conflicts between the Federal Government of Somalia and regional authorities, and between regional authorities themselves."
The overthrow of a dictator in 1991 plunged Somalia into two decades of violence, first at the hands of clan warlords and then Islamist militants, while two semi-autonomous regions - Puntland and Somaliland - have cropped up in northern Somalia.
About a dozen companies, including many multinational oil and gas majors, had licenses to explore Somalia before 1991, but since then Somaliland, Puntland and other authorities have granted their own licenses for the same blocks.
A petroleum law that has not yet been adopted by Somalia's parliament, but is being invoked by federal officials in the capital Mogadishu, says the central government can distribute natural resources.
Chopra said the Somaliland government commissioned a study into the viability of an armed unit and told the experts "of its willingness to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions governing the import of military equipment and training for any such Oil Protection Unit."
The committee would have to be notified of any such imports and could object, Chopra said.
The Security Council imposed the embargo on Somalia in 1992 to cut the flow of weapons to feuding warlords. The council last year partially lifted the arms embargo, allowing Mogadishu to buy light weapons to strengthen forces fighting Islamist groups.
Chopra wrote that the oil protection unit is unlikely to be formed for months. The Somaliland government's study has proposed an initial force of 420 personnel, drawn from the existing police and army units.
"The mandate of the Oil Protection Unit would be to deter threats through a credible armed presence and to defend against attacks with proportionate and regulated force as a last resort. It would ordinarily detect threats and deflect them into the hands of other Somaliland security agencies," Chopra said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Grant McCool)