May 16, 2012 / 5:08 PM / in 6 years

UPDATE 1-Several killed in Libya desert town clash

(Updates with death toll, government spokesman quotes)

TRIPOLI, May 16 (Reuters) - At least seven people were killed in clashes between armed nomads and residents of a Libyan town on the border with Algeria on Wednesday, officials said, underlining the insecurity that still plagues the country one month before elections.

The fighting erupted over control of a checkpoint on the edge of Ghadames on a desert route often used for smuggling, officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Tension had been building for days between locals and Tuareg tribesmen - nomads who roam the desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbours, an official at Ghadames local council said.

Government spokesman Nasser El-Manee said military forces had restored calm in the town, which lies about 600 km (370 miles) southwest of Tripoli and whose old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“There have been clashes in Ghadames. Seven people were killed, 20 people injured,” he said. “Military forces are inside the city. Now everything is under control,” he said, adding that Ghadames airport was closed for security reasons.

The Ghadames local council official put the death toll at 13, 12 of whom were Tuaregs, including a local Tuareg leader whose body was being kept at the hospital.

Earlier, resident Abdelgader Haiba said the two sides were fighting “over control of one of the main entrance gates”.

Libya’s interim rulers have struggled to impose their will on the vast country’s often fractious tribal groups since last year’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Many Tuaregs backed Gaddafi during the fighting because he supported their rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger in the 1970s and later allowed them to settle in southern Libya. The tribe is important to regional security because it has huge influence in the empty desert expanses which are used by drug traffickers and Islamist militants.

Libya is set to hold elections for a national assembly on June 19, the first free polls since the war last year.

The vote will distribute power among competing regions and tribes and pave the way for a new constitution. (Reporting by Ali Shuaib; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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