Murder trial marines return to India in Italian climbdown

Two Italian marines flew back to India Friday to face murder charges, defusing a bitter diplomatic stand-off sparked by an earlier announcement from Rome that the pair would not be returning.

The Indian government hailed Italy's last minute climbdown as a victory for diplomacy, after it had issued orders to immigration authorities to prevent Rome's ambassador to New Delhi from leaving the country.

Italy meanwhile said it had received assurances the marines would not face the death penalty if convicted, as President Giorgio Napolitano paid tribute to the pair's "sense of responsibility" in agreeing to return.

Italy caused outrage in India by announcing on March 11 that Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone would not return to India after they were given bail to vote in an election, reneging on pledges made at the Supreme Court.

But in a late night U-turn which came only hours before a deadline for the pair's return, the Italian government said it had received "ample assurances" from India that the marines' rights would be respected.

"The government decided, also in the interests of the marines, to maintain the commitment taken when they were granted leave to take part in the elections to return to India by March 22," said a government statement.

"The marines agreed to this decision," it added.

India's foreign ministry said the pair had taken an overnight flight.

"They are on their way back to Delhi," ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told AFP.

India's NDTV news channel said the marines were being escorted by Italy's deputy foreign minister Staffan de Mistura on a military aircraft.

The marines' lawyer said he did not expect them to appear in court on Friday. "There is no requirement for them to do so," Diljeet Titus told AFP.

While Akbaruddin said the marines' return was "no occasion for gloating", there was a deep sense of satisfaction in the Indian government.

"I am happy that the integrity and dignity of the Indian judicial process has been upheld," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid hailed Italy's decision as a success for diplomacy. "Diplomacy continues to work when everyone else thinks that everything is lost," he told reporters.

In a later address to lawmakers, Khurshid said India had assured Italy the marines were in no danger of being executed as "this case would not fall in the category of matters which attract the death penalty".

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi confirmed that Rome's concerns had been laid to rest.

"The agreement with India is that the case does not include any possibility of the maximum punishment being applied,," Terzi told La Repubblica daily.

Singh had warned of "consequences" if Rome did not return the marines, while Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the ruling Congress party, had accused Italy of a "betrayal".

After Italy said the marines would not return, Indian authorities forbade Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country, saying he had broken a written promise to the Supreme Court. Airports were even put on alert.

India's hardline stance caused alarm in diplomatic circles, with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton declaring on Tuesday that limiting Mancini's movement ran "contrary to the international obligations".

Italy had been insisting the pair should be prosecuted in their home country because the shootings involved an Italian-flagged vessel in international waters. India says the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.

The two are accused of murder after they shot dead two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates off the Indian port of Kochi last year. They were serving as security guards on an Italian oil tanker.

The two countries do have a prisoner transfer agreement, raising the possibility that the marines could serve their sentence in Italy if convicted.

Relations between the two countries have also been soured by corruption allegations surrounding a $748 million deal for the purchase of 12 Italian helicopters, which the Indian government is now threatening to scrap.