By Steve Scherer
ROME, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Italy won the backing of 10 mayors from towns in the desert south of Libya this week to fight people smuggling as part of an agreement signed earlier this month between Rome and the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
The mayors secretly flew to Rome on Monday, where they met Interior Minister Marco Minniti, who asked them to combat human trafficking in exchange for training, equipment and economic aid.
"They expressed their support for executing and implementing the agreement," a senior ministry source told Reuters. "It's an important step because of the difficulty in controlling such a vast territory."
Also on Monday, Italy's new ambassador to Tripoli held the first meeting with Libyan authorities about putting the agreement into practice, the source said.
Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 toppling of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, enabling smuggling gangs to develop entrenched networks that sent more than 160,000 boat migrants to Italy last year. More than 4,500 perished at sea.
Before being loaded onto flimsy boats on Libya's coast, they pay smugglers to cross the Sahara Desert. Most West Africans enter Libya from Niger in open desert, which has no border posts. Italy wants this area and the path north patrolled to stop smugglers from bringing migrants to the coast.
But putting the agreement into effect will depend on the cooperation of local authorities along the smuggling routes, because the Tripoli government exerts little effective control over much of the country.
Among the mayors who were flown to Italy for the meeting were those from the cities of Sabha, a major smuggling hub, Murzuq and Ghat, which is on the border with Algeria.
Some of the mayors told Reuters last week that they had not been informed of the Feb. 2 deal before it was signed by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj in Rome.
Many, including Sabha Mayor Hamed Al-Khyali, said last week they opposed the idea of EU-funded detention centres in Libya to hold migrants before the leave for Europe.
"Our priority is to support our own sons instead of allowing for illegal migrants in centres," Khyali said.
But the agreement offers millions of euros, without saying exactly how much, for "development programmes" to create jobs and build infrastructure in areas where people depend on smuggling for their livelihoods, aid that may help win the support of local authorities.
In exchange, the Libyans will be provided with "technical and technological support" to help close off the southern border and fight people smuggling, the agreement says.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Larry King)