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India's Supreme Court orders Italian envoy to stay


India's Supreme Court on Thursday issued an order to Italy's ambassador to stay in the country for four days amid a dispute over two Italian marines who skipped bail while on trial in New Delhi.

A three-judge bench asked ambassador Daniele Mancini, who had negotiated bail for the marines so they could return home and vote, to explain why the two men would not be returning.

Rome announced on Monday that Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, who face murder charges over the death of two Indian fishermen in February last year, would remain in Italy.

In a ruling which appeared to open up a legal grey area, the Italian ambassador was told he should not leave the country until March 18 which is the next date of a court hearing, an AFP reporter inside the court said.

However, a senior foreign ministry official acknowledged that New Delhi would not seek to restrain Mancini, an action which would contravene the Vienna Convention guaranteeing diplomats freedom of movement.

"It is for the the Italian ambassador to decide," he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is clear that he enjoys diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention. We have no right to restrict his movement."

The bench passed the order after Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati, the highest law officer in the country, said that Italy had reneged on its assurances.

"It is a breach of the undertaking given to the highest court of the land and the government is extremely concerned about it," Vahanvati told the bench headed by Chief Justice of India, Altamas Kabir.

The court's notice comes after Mancini was summoned to the Indian foreign ministry on Tuesday and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned of "consequences" unless the men were returned.

The marines are accused of shooting dead two fishermen off India's southwestern coast in February last year when their fishing boat sailed close to the Italian oil tanker they were guarding.

The marines said they mistook the fishermen for pirates.

They were granted leave by India's top court to return home for four weeks in order to vote in the February 24-25 national elections in Italy.

Italy insists the marines should be prosecuted in their home country because the shootings involved an Italian-flagged vessel in international waters, but India says the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.

The dispute has soured relations between the two countries and also fuelled anger over the government's handling of the case.

Prime Minister Singh and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid are under pressure from the opposition and media to give a firm response, which reports suggest could include expelling Mancini.

One columnist, writing for the FirstPost website, accused Italy of racism on Thursday, saying that "what they (Italy) seem to resent is that brown-skinned Indians may be sitting in judgement on their people".

"We will do everything that is necessary to ensure that the dignity and primacy of India in this matter is preserved," Khurshid told reporters after a meeting with the prime minister in New Delhi on Thursday.