New Delhi: Italy's recall of its envoy from New Delhi is aimed at signalling its "strong displeasure" with the Indian government's handling of a case involving two Italian sailors charged with murder, a top Italian official said on Saturday.   

The ambassador's recall on Friday escalated an increasingly tense diplomatic spat between Italy and India. The two marines, members of a military security team protecting a merchant vessel, were formally charged hours earlier in connection with the shooting of two Indian fishermen in February.    

The sailors, who have been held in the southern Indian state of Kerala, are due to appear in court on Saturday for a bail hearing.     

Italy's deputy foreign minister, Staffan de Mistura, on his third mission to India to push for the sailors to be released into Italian custody, said the decision to recall the ambassador followed a flurry of failed diplomatic efforts.   

It came after three telephone calls by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, a visit by Italy's defence minister and his own missions to India, he said from Kerala.   

It also followed the "absurd accusation of premeditated murder", De Mistura said. "It is a signal of profound displeasure," he said.   

Italy argues that jurisdiction over the marines should lie with Rome because the incident occurred in international waters, but the Indian government maintains that it is a matter for the courts and that it does not have the authority to intervene.   

Asked whether the case had damaged Italian-Indian ties, De Mistura said: "We are sending a strong signal to avoid damaging our relationship."   

India's foreign ministry played down the recall, saying it did not indicate relations had soured.     

The two sailors were stationed on a merchant ship off the southern Indian coast tasked with protecting it from pirate attacks. They fired warning shots at a fishing boat on Feb. 15, believing it to be a pirate vessel, they said.        

The marines were charged with murder shortly after the incident in February. Under Indian law, initial charges are formalised by police after investigation and before a trial can begin. A hearing to select a date for the trial is scheduled for May 25, Kerala's deputy public prosecutor said on Friday.    

One of the murder charges carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, but another can be punished by death, though the central government would have to approve that. India has not used the death penalty for several years.


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