ROME (Reuters) - Italy agreed on Friday to give more support to the Libyan coastguard to curb migrant flows, but Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni played down the scope of the mission to allay concerns in Tripoli.
A government source told Reuters on Thursday that Italy intended to dispatch several ships to Libyan waters by the end of August while Corriere della Sera newspaper said planes, helicopters and drones would also be deployed.
The reports alarmed officials in Tripoli, who denied giving permission for Italian forces to enter Libyan waters as part of international efforts to stop smugglers from sending thousands more people to Europe.
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Speaking after a cabinet meeting, Gentiloni said Italy would only act in accordance with the Libyan authorities and gave no details of what his government planned to do.
"This is an important initiative because it can give a significant help towards strengthening Libyan sovereignty. It is certainly not an initiative aimed at hurting Libyan sovereignty," he told reporters.
"It would certainly not reflect reality to say the government was planning to send an enormous fleet and squadrons of aircraft," he said. "We are taking about a request, which we have accepted, to support the Libyan coastguard."
The proposal will be debated by parliament on Tuesday.
Some 600,000 migrants, fleeing war and economic hardship at home, have reached Italy by sea from North Africa since 2014, pushing immigration to the top of the political agenda.
Most migrants have embarked from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity in the turmoil that has gripped the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Thousands have drowned after their overloaded and flimsy boats capsize.
Italy has been at the forefront of efforts to make the Libyan coastguard more effective in the fight against people smugglers, training its members and helping the Tripoli government to upgrade its fleet.
Libyan officials say they need far more equipment than the repaired vessels being delivered by Italy, none of which is new.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Louise Ireland)