By Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya will build a satellite surveillance system with Italian expertise to help secure its borders, its defense minister said, part of Tripoli's plans to stem the flow of Islamist militants and illegal immigrants.
Western powers worry that the sprawling North African state has become a safe haven for al Qaeda fighters as its government struggles to rein in militias and former rebels who helped topple longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi two years ago.
Weak border controls and a small army lacking training and 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.
Human traffickers also smuggle refugees over the remote desert borders with Egypt, Sudan or Chad into Libya from where they try reach Italy by boat. Hundreds died in the past two months on their way to Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily.
Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thini told Reuters Libya had contracted an Italian company to start setting up from December a satellite-based surveillance system to monitor the border from the Mediterranean coast to the sub-Saharan boundaries.
"It will cover the whole border. From the end of 2014 the southern border will be sealed. The crossing points and weak spots will be closed with the help of satellites," he said this week, without giving technical details or the project's cost.
"We will spot any infiltration or approaching vehicle," Thini said in an interview.
Libya was also turning to Saudi Arabia to benefit from the kingdom's experience controlling the flow of Islamists or illegal workers over its desert border with impoverished Yemen.
"We will cooperate with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," he said. "Their geographic conditions are similar to Libya."
Libyan officials had also recently travelled to Sudan, Chad and Egypt to strengthen border security cooperation. "I'm just out of a meeting with the defense minister from Niger to discuss border security," he said.
To train its fledgling army, Libya has sent thousands of soldiers to military academies in Britain, France, Italy, the United States, Turkey as well as Arab countries Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Sudan.
Britain alone is training 2,000 Libyan soldiers in basic infantry skills, the Foreign Office said this week.
"We have in all these countries soldier students who enjoy intensive training. Each year about 5,000 get trained overseas and 10,000 at home," he said.
But Thini acknowledged that it will take time to build up forces able to tackle heavily-armed militias battle-hardened from the time of the NATO-backed revolt against Gaddafi.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan relied on a militia group to free him after rival fighters abducted him briefly in Tripoli in October. Army and police force were outside the building where he was held for hours but did not challenge the gunmen.
The army took a back seat almost two weeks ago when a militia from Misrata opened fire on protesters asking them to leave Tripoli. Warplanes circled Tripoli and soldiers took to the streets, but did little to challenge the Misrata fighters.
"To be honest, these forces... were not equal to ours due to their superiority in numbers and weapons," Thini said of the Misrata fighters. "The army ... was residing in its barracks. To avoid any unnecessary conflicts or trouble we preferred not to deploy forces to the streets earlier. Now the situation has changed, our units are able to secure the whole capital."
Several militias vacated the Libyan capital last week after the fighting ended, handing over bases to the army, which has since set up checkpoints across Tripoli.
(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Patrick Markey/Mark Heinrich)