Italian sailors freed on bail in India murder case

ROME Sat Jun 2, 2012 7:58pm EDT

Italian sailors Massimiliano Latorre (L) and Salvatore Girone sit in a police vehicle after they appeared in court in the southern Indian city of Kochi June 2, 2012. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Italian sailors Massimiliano Latorre (L) and Salvatore Girone sit in a police vehicle after they appeared in court in the southern Indian city of Kochi June 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Sivaram V

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ROME (Reuters) - Italian sailors charged with murdering two Indian fishermen were released on bail on Saturday to await trial, one step closer to the climax of a major diplomatic row between Rome and New Delhi.

An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, had moved to a hotel in the port city of Kochi in the western Indian state of Kerala, where they are obliged to stay under conditions of their bail.

An Indian court on May 30 set bail at 10 million Indian rupees ($178,900) each and said Latorre and Girone would not be allowed to leave Kochi for the duration of the trial, set to begin on June 18.

Prime Minister Mario Monti expressed "great satisfaction" for the release of the two sailors, but added that his real hope was to get them home.

"The final conclusion that we are seeking," Monti said in a statement "is the return in Italy of our marines."

The sailors were part of a military security team protecting the cargo ship Enrica Lexie from pirate attacks when they opened fire on the fishermen's boat off the coast of Kerala on February 15. Italian officials say the men mistook the fishermen for pirates.

The incident has soured relations between Italy and India, with Rome insisting that India does not have jurisdiction to try the sailors because the shooting occurred in international waters and as part of an international anti-piracy effort.

The Indian government says it is a matter for the courts to decide and it will not intervene in the judicial process.

Monti has telephoned his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, several times and dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Staffan de Mistura to India to try to resolve the case diplomatically, all to no avail.

When the marines were charged with murder in May, Italy recalled its ambassador for consultations to signal its "strong displeasure" with the Indian authorities' handling of the case.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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