ROME An Italian military prosecutor on Wednesday questioned two marines who last month refused to return to India to face trial on charges of killing two Indian fisherman while on anti-piracy duty in 2012.
The dispute spurred India's top court last week to temporarily bar the Italian ambassador from leaving the country and has frayed relations between the world's most populous democracy and European Union member Italy.
Dressed in uniform, marines Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre were accompanied by lawyers to the hearing with prosecutor Marco De Paolis, who has opened an investigation into the shooting but has not yet raised any possible charges.
India's Supreme Court ruled in January that India had jurisdiction to try the marines. But Italy has challenged that decision, arguing that the shooting took place in international waters and that the two should face any trial at home.
Wednesday's questioning "marks the beginning of the Italian jurisdiction over the case involving the two marines", a government source told Reuters.
The feud has escalated since the sailors declared they would not return to India after coming home to vote in a national election, prompting the Indian Supreme Court order that the Italian ambassador not leave the country for the time being.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned on Tuesday that blocking a diplomatic envoy is a violation of international law.
The marines, part of a military security team protecting the tanker Enrica Lexie from piracy, are accused of shooting dead two fishermen in February 2012, apparently after mistaking them for pirates in waters off the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Girone and Latorre said they fired warning shots only.
They were detained in India to face trial, but the Supreme Court allowed them to go home for four weeks to vote in a parliamentary election on February 24-25, provided they returned to India. But earlier this month, Italy advised the Indian government the two would not return.
Italy's Foreign Ministry last week said the incident had become a formal dispute over a U.N. resolution mandating international action against piracy.
(Reporting by Alberto Sisto; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)