By Steve Scherer and Gabriela Baczynska

ROME/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Italy launched a new fund on Wednesday to help African countries control their borders, in the latest of a slew of measures pushed by the European Union to stop migrants reaching Europe.

EU leaders meeting in Malta on Friday are expected to give their backing to the new drive to stem African migration to Europe. It includes stepping up training of Libya's coastguard and financing for the U.N. agencies for refugees (UNHCR) and migration (IOM) to improve dire conditions for migrants there.

"The strategic objective is to help (African countries) control their external borders and to stop departures," Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said in Rome, announcing the 200 million-euro ($216 million) Italian fund.

African countries can request training and equipment to beef up border controls, with Libya, Tunisia and Niger the three main partners for now, Alfano said.

The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy is currently the main route to Europe for migrants. A record 181,000 made the journey last year, most on flimsy boats run by people-smugglers.

More than 5,000 are believed to have died attempting the crossing in 2016.

Smugglers operate with impunity in Libya, which has been in turmoil since the 2011 overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

RAPE AND TORTURE

On a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj appealed for more international support for his government, which is challenged by various factions.

"One of the challenges we face as the government of national accord is to gain more international support and of course NATO is one of those major international institutions on which we count," he said.

He asked for NATO's help in building Libya's security capacities "in order to fight more effectively against terrorism and ... illegal migration".

The EU's executive European Commission last week proposed mobilizing a further 200 million euros to help countries in Africa prevent the movement of migrants before they even embark across the sea for Europe.

The bloc is looking at providing funding to improve conditions in migrant camps in Libya. The United Nations sounded alarm last year that migrants there suffer arbitrary detention, forced labor, rape and torture.

The EU says most of those coming from Africa are economic migrants and wants to send them back. The UNHCR's director for Europe, Vincent Cochetel, said however nearly 40 percent of those arriving in Italy had a case for international protection.

"This is not a detail," he said on Twitter this week, calling on the EU leaders meeting in Malta to "factor in ... elementary considerations of humanity".

(Editing by Andrew Roche)