Italian defense minister visits marines in India

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India Sun Dec 16, 2012 1:43am EST

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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India Dec 16 (Reuters) - Italy's Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paolo on Sunday visited two Italian marines accused of killing two fishermen off the coast of southern India, stepping up pressure to allow the men home for Christmas after the case flared into a diplomatic spat.

The sailors, members of a military security team protecting the cargo ship Enrica Lexie from pirate attacks, open fired on a fishing boat they mistook for a pirate craft off the southern state of Kerala in February. The killings of the unarmed fishermen triggered outrage in India.

Earlier in the week, Italy summoned India's ambassador in Rome and expressed "strong disappointment" that India's Supreme Court had delayed a decision on which country the two marines should be tried in.

Italy wants the Supreme Court to rule that the shooting took place in international waters, outside India' jurisdiction. That would open the way for the marines to be tried in Italy, where their case has become a national cause celebre.

The two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, have filed a petition with Kerala's High Court, seeking permission to return to Italy for two weeks over Christmas.

Latorre and Girone are facing murder charges at the Kerala court, which is due to decide on their request on Tuesday.

"Nobody more than India knows the values of festivities. For us Christmas is our biggest festivity. We are confident that the Indian people will understand this," Di Paolo told reporters in the port city of Kochi, where the marines are on bail.

"We have respect in the Supreme Court of India. We are confident that the case will be decided according to international laws," Di Paolo said, accompanied by Italy's ambassador to India.

Di Paolo arrived in Kochi on Saturday from Afghanistan. He is expected to return to Italy from Kerala without meeting senior Indian officials.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Michael Perry)