March 7, 2012 / 6:07 PM / 5 years ago

EU moves to help free Italian sailors held in India

3 Min Read

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union said on Wednesday it was intervening to seek a resolution to the dispute between Italy and India after two Italian marines were detained for allegedly shooting dead two Indian fishermen they believed to be pirates.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, in a phone call to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday, said it is still not clear who actually shot the fishermen, and repeated that India had no jurisdiction over the matter because it occurred in international waters.

"Following the request of Italy, we are now undertaking contacts that are aimed at contributing to finding a satisfactory solution for this case as soon as possible," a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

Tension escalated this week after Italian newspapers criticized the Foreign Ministry, saying it had been too cautious in its handling of the dispute.

On Monday, Italy's Foreign Ministry summoned the Indian ambassador, Shri Debabrata Saha, to protest about the jailing of the two marines.

Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were part of a security detail protecting Italian merchant vessel Enrica Lexie. On February 15, the two opened fire when they thought they were under attack from pirates in international waters about 20 miles from the Indian coast.

"Any Indian position that is not fully in line with international law risks creating a dangerous precedent regarding international peace missions and the fight against piracy," Monti told Singh in the phone call, according to a statement from the Italian premier's office.

Singh shared Monti's concern about the dispute and pledged to give "full attention" to the request to have the marines moved out of a prison and to a place "adequate for their military status," the statement added.

The two sailors handed themselves in to authorities in the southern town of Kochi on February 20, and were held in a police-guarded house before being transferred to a prison in Trivandrum on Monday.

At the prison, Italy's envoy Staffan de Mistura, stood between the warden and the two sailors, refusing to let them be jailed among the general population, Corriere della Sera newspaper said.

Instead they have been housed in a white, one-room building in the prison compound, rather than a cell, and they are brought meals prepared by an Italian navy cook, including pizza and pasta, the newspaper said.

A ballistics test that will determine whether the bullets that killed the fisherman came from the marines' gun may be released as early as Friday, the paper said.

Rome began assigning military teams to protect its merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean last year after a series of attacks by Somali pirates on Italian ships.

Pirates operating in small fishing vessels and fast motorboats have hijacked dozens of ships in the region in recent years, extracting millions of dollars in ransom.

Reporting by Sebastian Moffett, writing by Steve Scherer

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