ROME Italy recalled its ambassador from New Delhi on Friday after two Italian members of an anti-piracy unit were charged with the murder of two Indian fishermen in an escalation of an increasingly tense diplomatic dispute.
The Italian marines, who were members of a security detachment protecting the merchant vessel Enrica Lexie, have been held in Kerala since being arrested by local authorities in February.
Italy's foreign ministry said it was recalling its ambassador for consultations "in light of the situation in Kerala and the charges against the two Italian servicemen Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone".
Latorre and Girone were stationed on a merchant ship off the southern Indian coast tasked with protecting it from pirate attacks. They fired warning shots at a fishing boat on February 15, believing it to be a pirate vessel, they said.
A spokesman for India's foreign ministry said the fact that Italy had recalled its ambassador did not indicate relations had soured.
"Calling back for consultation is not unusual and they have not told us it is anything unusual. Our understanding is that it is for consultation, not for recall," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named.
One of the murder charges carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, but another can be punished by death, though the central government would have to approve that. India has not used the death penalty for several years, the state's deputy public prosecutor K.O. Raju told Reuters.
The marines will appear in court on May 25, when a charge sheet will be presented to them, and the trial could begin shortly afterwards, Raju said.
The Enrica Lexie entered the Indian port of Kochi on February 20 after the authorities asked its crew to help identify some suspected pirates.
The marines were then arrested by some 30 armed Indian officials in what the Italian foreign minister said was "subterfuge by the local police".
India has ignored Italy's protests that jurisdiction over the marines should lie with Rome because the incident occurred in international waters.
Speaking on Indian television, Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister Staffan de Mistura said on Friday that the Indian legal process was taking too long and vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court if the verdict in Kerala went against the marines.
He made no mention of the ambassador being recalled.
(Reporting by Gavin Jones and James Mackenzie; Additional reporting by D. Jose in Thiruvananthapuram and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Editing by Andrew Osborn)