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Mar 22, 2013 at 08:34pm IST

Italian marines accused of killing Kerala fishermen return to India to face murder trial

New Delhi: The two Italian marines, Massimiliano Lattore and Salvatore Girone, charged with killing of two Kerala fishermen, reached Delhi on Friday evening to face murder trial in the case.

The marines arrived at about 6 pm, hours before the deadline set by the Supreme Court, which had allowed them to go back to Italy to vote in the elections there, expired.

While External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has said there was no "deal" between India and Italy on the issue, he has also assured Rome that the marines won't be arrested or given death sentence in the case.

The marines, part of a military security team protecting a tanker from piracy in February, 2012, are accused of shooting two fishermen in Kerala. They had said they fired warning shots at a fishing boat believing it to be a pirate vessel.

The marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, returned to India in an Italian air force plane. Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Staffan de Mistura was travelling with them.

"We are happy with the outcome which is consistent with the dignity of Indian judicial process," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said earlier in the day.

India and Italy have been embroiled in a sharply escalating diplomatic row over the marines, who had been allowed to leave India to vote in the Italian elections in February on condition they returned by Friday. However, Rome informed New Delhi on March 11 that they would not be returning to stand trial.

The decision upset India and the Supreme Court taking a note of Italy's "betrayal" barred Italy's ambassador from leaving the country, a ruling that sent ripples of concern through the diplomatic community in New Delhi.

The European Union warned India it would be violating international law if it tried to enforce the decision. The diplomatic stand-off sparked speculation the Indian government could try to bar Italian defence giant Finmeccanica from doing business in India. Indian police are investigating both Finmeccanica and its helicopter division, AgustaWestand, over corruption allegations, which the companies deny.

Intense negotiations

Behind the scenes, Italian and Indian officials were trying resolve the dispute before it escalated further. "There have been very intensive diplomatic contacts between Italy and India during the last 24 hours," External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

Details of the negotiations have not been disclosed but Akbaruddin told Reuters that India and Italy had an agreement under which sentenced prisoners could serve jail time in their home countries.

Khurshid said in Parliament that India had assured Italy that the marines would not face the death penalty, which only applied in the "rarest of rare cases".

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called Latorre to tell him and Girone that he "appreciated the sense of responsibility demonstrated in their acceptance of the government's decision", according to a statement.

(With additional information from Reuters)