By Noor Ali

ISIOLO, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya said on Friday it had sent troops to its northern region to stop a week of fighting between rival ethnic groups that has killed at least 10 people and sent thousands fleeing across the border into Ethiopia.

Joseph ole Lenku, the cabinet minister for internal security, said in a statement that parliament had approved the deployment of the Kenya Defence Forces. He did not say how many troops had been sent or how long they would remain.

Rural communities in northern Kenya have long clashed over the control of valuable grazing land, but the fighting in the town of Moyale has marked an escalation in tension.

Residents say politicians in the region, some 800 km (500 miles) from the capital Nairobi, are using clan militia to jostle for power in new local administrations that have been formed since a March 4 election, and to settle old scores.

More than 20,000 people have fled into Ethiopia, residents and a Kenya Red Cross worker said. Others are seeking refuge at the local police post. The border has since been closed to prevent militia from entering Kenya, security officials said.

Security officials in Moyale said 10 people had been killed in fierce fighting between rival ethnic groups - Borana on one side and an alliance of Gabra and Burji on the other. They battled with guns and mortars, officials said. Local people put the death toll at more than 20, with dozens wounded.

Issiah Nakoru, the county commissioner, said he had received reports of 10 deaths.

TROOP PATROLS

"We are liaising with security officials in Ethiopia to ensure no foreign fighters cross into Kenya," Nakoru said. He said Kenyan troops patrolling the vast, harsh terrain had arrested several people suspected of involvement in the fighting.

Tit-for-tat clashes have also been reported this month in the northwestern Turkana region, an area where explorer Tullow Oil has discovered oil deposits. More than 10 people have been killed in those clashes, and thousands displaced.

Although Tullow's operations have not been affected by the fighting, the oil company was forced to temporarily halt drilling for two weeks in October after local residents stormed their drilling sites demanding more jobs and benefits.

Kenya has sent in extra security forces to the north in the past, but sporadic and low-key fighting has continued after the officers have pulled out.

Many homesteads in the region have weapons to deter invaders, while herders often carry guns to protect their animals because there is barely any police presence.

The entire arid northern region of Kenya is also awash with guns due to its proximity to unstable neighbours such as Somalia, where al Qaeda-linked militants have been fighting to topple the government, and Ethiopia, where the armed Oromo Liberation Front has made sporadic incursions into Kenya.

(Additional reporting and writing by James Macharia; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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