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United Nations Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salame speaks during his visit to Benghazi University in Benghazi, Libya August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

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ROME (Reuters) - The United Nations is preparing to deploy up to 250 peacekeepers to Libya to guard its base in the capital as part of a plan to return its operations to the country, the head of the organisation's mission there said on Friday.

Backed by Western governments, the U.N. is trying to heal a rift between Libya's two rival governments, to tackle growing militant violence and people smuggling from its northern coast.

Envoy Ghassan Salame told Italian newspaper La Stampa that "a little under 250" peacekeepers "can be deployed in the coming weeks".

The mission has been based in Tunis since 2014 but has gradually increased its presence on the ground in Libya and has been planning for months for a fuller return.

The military unit would probably consist of around 150 people, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told a news briefing in Geneva.

Deploying the peacekeepers to the base in Tripoli "will mean that around the beginning of October we can carry out a significant part of our work in Libya," said Salame, who has headed the mission since June.

The rival leaders have pledged to work towards elections in 2018 and a conditional ceasefire in a conflict which broke out after the 2011 ousting of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Salame said there were many issues to address to ensure a vote brought lasting change, including writing constitutional and electoral laws.

"We need to be sure everyone accepts the final result," he said. "Let's not forget that presidential elections would be the first ever."

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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Reuters