Encounter with Italian tanker scars survivors

Dora, widow of fisherman Valentine (in picture in background). Kerala state, India
Image caption Dora wants compensation for the death of her fisherman-husband Valentine (in picture frame)

India and Italy are scrambling to defuse a diplomatic row over the deaths of two Indian fisherman mistaken for pirates by Italian marines guarding an oil tanker. Supriya Menon has been speaking to the fishermen's crewmates and family in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Fisherman J Fredy was asleep on board the trawler St Antony when he first heard gun shots.

"I suddenly saw my colleague Valentine who was steering the boat slumped over the wheel with blood oozing from his ear and nose and thought he was sick.

"It was only later that I noticed gun shots. I didn't stop to think and just steered the boat away from the gunfire trying to get far away from the big ship that I saw."

The big ship that Fredy is referring to is the Enrica Lexie, the Italian oil tanker that was on its way from Singapore to Egypt with a crew of 34.

Walking me around the small fishing boat, 30-year-old Fredy points out bullet marks. He says he is still terrified thinking about the incident and considers himself fortunate to be alive.

"In my 10-year-long fishing career I have never come across something like this. I don't want to go back to the sea now. I am scared and so is my family. Earlier it used to be fun to be out in the ocean, now there is no guarantee that I will come back alive."

The St Antony is now docked, guarded on all sides by police boats.

Compensation claim

Image caption Fisherman J Fredy says he is afraid to go back out to sea after the deaths of two crewmates

Just a few kilometres away is the fishing village of Moothakara. Valentine, 48, used to live here with his wife and two kids.

Since his death, the family has had several high-profile visitors, including India's Defence Minister AK Antony.

Valentine's wife Dora says she wants justice for her family and has asked the government to ensure the safety of fishermen out at sea.

The family has filed a compensation claim of 10m rupees ($200,000; £126,000) from the Italian shipping company.

Their lawyer, C Unnikrishnan says they will ask for a larger sum.

"Our claim is only $200,000 which is [low by] international standards. We are planning to amend it and ask for at least $500,000."

There are now indications that the matter may be settled out of court.

Image caption The fishing boat the St Antony bears the scars of the encounter with the Italian oil tanker

However, public sentiment is strong on both sides. Local fishermen want to see the marines punished here in India. Italy on its part has been lobbying hard to get the marines released, saying the incident took place outside of Indian jurisdiction in international waters.

The incident has also triggered a debate on the wider issue of piracy in the Indian ocean.

The Indian government is now looking at changing laws and ensuring better policing of its coastline. That may not be so easy given India's vast coast.

There's also the issue of posting armed guards on ships to fight off pirates; while it may scare off potential pirates, it can also lead to tragedies for some families.

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