Updated at: 03/23/2013 3:12 PM
By RAVI NESSMAN
(AP) NEW DELHI - Two Italian marines returned to India on Friday to face trial in the killing of a pair of Indian fishermen, ending a diplomatic rift that had soured ties between the two countries.
Italy had earlier said it would not send the marines back as promised, insisting the South Asian nation had no standing to try the men. But Italy reversed its position Thursday and sent them back to meet a Friday deadline for their return.
The marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, arrived in New Delhi on Friday evening, according to Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
Staffan De Mistura, Italy’s foreign ministry undersecretary who accompanied the marines on their return, said a "potential diplomatic crisis had been defused."
India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, said Italy’s decision healed the rift between the two nations.
"We have a valuable relationship with Italy," Khurshid told reporters. The fact that the incident "did not derail our relationship, and that things are back on track and are normal is a matter of satisfaction."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also praised Italy’s decision.
"We are very happy the Italian government is upholding the integrity and dignity of the Indian judicial process," he said.
The Indian Supreme Court allowed the marines to return home last month to vote in the Italian election in exchange for a promise from the Italian ambassador that they would return within four weeks. The marines had returned from a similar trip home over Christmas without incident.
But this time, after the marines flew home, the Italian government announced they would not be coming back, triggering a diplomatic crisis. The Italian foreign ministry said the decision to try them in India violated their rights.
India’s Supreme Court, contending the Italian ambassador had reneged on his promise, barred him from leaving the country. It also contended that his actions could nullify his diplomatic immunity.
Singh angrily demanded the men be returned to India, warning that Italy would otherwise face unspecified consequences.
Italy backed down Thursday, agreeing to send them back on condition they not be subject to the death penalty if convicted, Khurshid said. India assured them this was not a capital case, he said. Khurshid said he also told Italy the marines would not be arrested if they returned as scheduled Friday. Instead, they would be allowed to continue living in the Italian Embassy.
The Indian Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the men should be tried by a special court to be set up by the central government in consultation with the chief justice. The decision removed the case from the jurisdiction of the southern state of Kerala, near where the shooting took place.
De Mistura urged the Indian government to set up the special court and complete the judicial process as quickly as possible.
"We are looking at concluding this matter as fast as it can be done," he told reporters.
The marines were part of a military security team on a cargo ship when they fired at a fishing boat in February 2012, killing the two fishermen. The marines said they mistook the fishing boat for a pirate craft.
India contends the shooting happened in Indian waters, while Italy has insisted it occurred in international waters during an international anti-piracy mission and that Italy should have jurisdiction.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)