TRIPOLI - Libya is not "preventing" NGOs from carrying out migrant rescue operations off its coast, but has set up a coastal search and rescue zone to "organise" their work, its navy said Wednesday.
The navy last week ordered unauthorised foreign vessels to stay out of Libya's coastal zone, a measure it said targeted NGOs carrying out search and rescue missions for migrants headed towards Europe.
Several NGOs including Doctors without Borders (MSF), Germany's Sea-Eye and Britain's Save the Children have since suspended their operations.
Tripoli has long accused the NGOs of collaboration with people traffickers.
"We did not announce any prohibited zone, nor did we prevent any party or organisation from carrying out clear, transparent rescue operations," the navy said in a statement.
"What we announced was aimed at organising the work, which has become chaotic and arbitrary."
Six years since a revolution that toppled longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya has become a departure point for masses of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, mostly heading for Italy.
The Libyan navy called the situation "chaotic, especially close to Libyan waters".
It said the NGOs' decision to suspend operations was "regretable" but denied it was responsible, blasting the NGOs' "aggressive discourse" that was "smearing" Libya.
It added that its move to create a coastal search and rescue zone was "a legitimate right of the Libyan state, guaranteed by international laws".
It called for "coordination with the Libyan authorities" to help save lives "without infringing on Libyan sovereignty".
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said this week that the zone would likely be authorised by the International Maritime Organization.
But he added that the coastguard of chaos-torn Libya does not have the resources to patrol such an area.
The Libyan authorities have requested aid from Italy to help secure its maritime borders.