India, Italy wrangle over Indian fishermen killing

February 22, 2012 - 8:05 AM
India Italy Ship Firing

Italian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Staffan De Mistura greets officials at the Indian Foreign Ministry in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. Italy sent De Mistura to India on Tuesday to negotiate with the government after two Italian marine security guards were arrested there for allegedly shooting to death two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates. (AP Photo/ Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI (AP) — The shooting deaths of two Indian fishermen mistaken for pirates sparked diplomatic wrangling Wednesday over the arrests of two Italian marines, and some maritime experts are questioning the use of armed guards on merchant ships.

Pirates based off lawless Somalia cost the shipping industry billions of dollars and they are operating in wider swaths of the Indian Ocean. To protect against the growing threat, several countries, including India, have allowed armed security guards to be deployed on ships.

The killing of the two fishermen off India's southwestern coast Feb. 15 made real the worst fears of those who had warned against the change in policy.

India accused the Italian marines of mistaking the fishing boat for a pirate ship, shooting at it and killing the two fishermen. On Sunday, it arrested the marines, who were part of a six-member security team on the cargo ship the Enrica Lexie.

With the men facing murder charges, Staffan De Mistura, Italy's foreign ministry undersecretary, flew to India to plead their case to India's deputy foreign minister, Preneet Kaur.

New Delhi says the men must be tried here because the killings happened on an Indian boat and the dead men were Indians. Rome says the shooting took place in international waters and involved an Italian-flagged ship, and the case should be handled in Italian courts.

De Mistura said the talks Wednesday were "constructive," but gave few details.

Kaur said that while they disagreed on where the men should be tried, she had assured the Italians that Indian courts were "fair and free."

"We will certainly go by our law," she said.

Italy maintains that under U.N. anti-piracy norms, military personnel are allowed on cargo ships and are part of the Italian state and thus immune from foreign jurisdiction.

Maritime organizations are questioning whether the very presence of armed security could actually increase violence on the high seas.

Earlier this week, UK-based maritime safety experts BCB International Ltd. said that the world needs to "rethink the self-protection measures used by commercial ships to ward off attacks from pirates."

"We have been warning for some time about the dangers linked with the used of armed guards on commercial vessels. The vast majority of armed guards protecting commercial vessels are extremely well trained and highly professional; but there can be no room for human error when lethal force is used," the group's marine projects manager, Jonathan Delf, said in a statement Monday.

BCB appealed to world leaders meeting Thursday at the London Somalia Conference to bring forward "new non-lethal protective measures" to protect vessels from pirates.

The Horn of Africa nation hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, and piracy has flourished. While international militaries patrol the region, the seas are too vast to completely stop attacks.

Indian ship owners have said their government's decision to allow armed guards has prevented protected ships from being hijacked.

Ian Millen, head of intelligence at the UK-based Dryad Maritime Intelligence Services, told The Associated Press that the use of force must always remain a last resort and shipping companies must take other measures to protect themselves against pirate attacks.

These include using speedy vessels with tall sides that are difficult for pirates to climb, high pressure water hoses and razor wire.

But Millen said armed guards were required in certain high-risk areas of the Indian Ocean.

Whether the presence of armed security escalated the level of violence hadn't been sufficiently proved, he said. In the past, pirates have aborted attacks when the level of risk is too high, he said.

"What is absolutely critical is that people understand the context and the way of life of the people in the areas they are traveling in," Millen said.

The India incident would definitely lead to more assessment of armed guards on merchant ships, he said.

"Any incident that ends in tragic circumstances is bound to have some repercussions within the industry," he said.