India police open murder case against Italian ship crew

The Napoli registered Italian merchant vessel Enrica Lexie (L) is anchored off the harbour in the southern Indian city of Kochi February 16, 2012
Image caption The shooting incident has heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries

Police in India have opened a murder enquiry into the deaths of two fishermen allegedly killed by gunfire from an Italian oil tanker.

The police want to question six Italian marines who were on board the tanker.

Police sources say Italy maintains the personnel cannot be charged under Indian law and the Italian embassy in Delhi is seeking legal help.

Reports say naval guards aboard the tanker mistook the Indian fishing boat for a pirate vessel.

Wednesday's incident has sparked a major diplomatic row between India and Italy.

Indian Defence Minister AK Antony has described the killings as "very serious" and an "unfortunate incident".

The Italian ambassador in Delhi was summoned by the foreign ministry on Thursday over the shooting.

Compensation payment

The six marines are aboard the tanker, the MV Enrica Lexie, anchored of the port of Kochi in southern India's Kerala state.

"We want to question them for more details. The ship and its remaining crew will not be allowed to leave until they furnish all formalities," said senior Kerala state police official P Chandrasekharan.

"We will treat it like any other murder case".

The entire crew is still on board and have already been visited for questioning by police.

Indian officials say they are surprised at the shooting and that the fishermen did nothing to threaten the Italian ship.

Following the incident, the Indian coastguard sent two boats and an aircraft to intercept the ship.

The Kerala state government has authorised a payment of 500,000 rupees ($10,125; £6,450) each to the dead fishermen's families.

'No weapons'

The Italian ship fired at the fishermen in waters off India's southern state of Kerala, the Indian navy said in a statement.

Officials said the vessel was bound from Singapore to Egypt, with a crew of 34, including 19 Indians.

The Italians say the crew members fired in self-defence - after initially firing warning shots - because they feared their vessel was about to be attacked.

A senior official in Kerala, PG Thomas, said the attack was unwarranted as there were "no weapons on the trawler".

Indian officials said nine of the 11 fishermen in the trawler were asleep and the two victims were steering it when the incident happened.

"The fishermen did not fire at the ship. They couldn't have been mistaken for pirates," said Kerala police official P Chandrashekhar.

"The Indian trawler was 100m from the ship. The trawler wanted the ship to pass."

Piracy has emerged as a major threat to merchant ships in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, with Somali pirates hijacking ships and their crews for ransom.

Pirate attacks have come down recently partly because more armed guards are now deployed on board ships.

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