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China says it warned a U.S. warship in the South China Sea

BEIJING, January 20 (Reuters) - Chinese forces followed and warned a U.S. warship that was entering waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the country's military said Thursday, in the latest rise in tensions in the disputed waterway.

The Southern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army said the USS Benfold "illegally" sailed into Chinese territorial waters without permission, violating the country's sovereignty, and that Chinese naval and air forces tracked the ship.

"We solemnly demand that the American side immediately stop such provocative acts, otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events," it added.

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The U.S. Navy said Benfold "claimed rights and freedoms in the vicinity of Paracel Island, in accordance with international law".

"At the end of the operation, the USS Benfold left the excessive demand and continued operations in the South China Sea," said 7th Fleet spokesman Mark Langford.

The United States often conducts what it calls free navigation missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims.

China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the waters, which are crossed by vital shipping routes and also contain gas fields and rich fishing grounds.

The South China Sea has become one of many hotspots in the difficult relationship between China and the United States, with Washington rejecting what it calls illegal territorial claims from Beijing.

China claims large parts of the South China Sea. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have overlapping requirements.

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Reporting from Beijing Newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Edited by Himani Sarkar and Kenneth Maxwell

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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