Libya sends troops to restore order in volatile south-PM

TRIPOLI Sat Jan 18, 2014 9:27am EST

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TRIPOLI Jan 18 (Reuters) - Libya is sending troops to the country's restive south after gunmen stormed an air force base in the region's biggest town, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said on Saturday, following days of skirmishes between rival tribesmen and militias.

Zeidan said a small group of gunmen had entered the air force base outside Sabha, 770 km (480 miles) south of the capital Tripoli, but the government was in control of the town and its civilian airport.

"This confrontation (at the air base) is continuing but in a few hours it will be solved," the prime minister told a televised address, without elaborating.

Zeidan said he had sent his defence minister to Misrata to instruct troops based there to move to the south. The central coastal city is home to some of the most experienced soldiers and militias, battle-hardened from the 2011 uprising.

"The troops from Misrata have been commissioned by the government to conduct a national task ... to spread security and stability in the region," he said in the address.

The government, with its nascent army still in training, has struggled to rein in the armed groups which helped topple Muammar Gaddafi two-and-a-half years ago but kept their guns to press for political and financial demands.

Weak border controls and a small army lacking equipment have turned Libya into a weapons smuggling route for al Qaeda in sub-Saharan countries and also a transit corridor for Islamist fighters heading to Syria's war.

Western powers worry about instability in the sparsely populated south bordering Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt.

People traffickers also use the remote desert borders to smuggle refugees into Libya from where many try to reach Europe by boat. (Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Feras Bosalum; Editing; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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