TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's elected government has accused the Italian navy of violating the country's territorial waters after authorities said they spotted three Italian warships off the eastern coast, but Italy's government on Sunday dismissed the claim.
Libya is caught in a conflict between its recognized government in the east and a self-proclaimed government controlling Tripoli, a rivalry western powers worry has allowed Islamist militants and people smugglers to grow in strength.
In a statement released late on Saturday, Libya's recognized government said its naval forces had spotted three warships close to the east coast of the North African country.
"The warships kept on until they approached the shores of Deryana town in east of Benghazi," it said. "The government strongly condemns this violation."
Italy's defense ministry denied any of its ships had violated Libyan waters.
"All of Italy's military ships present in the Mediterranean operate in international waters and respect the limits established by treaty," it said.
The European Union has already deployed a naval mission in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea in an effort to stop migrant smugglers who have taken advantage of Libya's chaos to send thousands of people across to Europe.
The United Nations is attempting to broker a peace agreement and unity government between Libya's factions, which would open the door to more European and international cooperation and aid. One option maybe expanding the EU mission into Libyan waters.
(Reporting by Ayman Al-Warfalli in Benghazi; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Ralph Boulton)