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‘Weak’ Italy humbled by rising India in shootings row

Filed on March 7, 2012

ROME — Experts say Italy’s government is failing its first big foreign policy test, as the fate of a pair of marines arrested for killing two Indian fishermen risks a diplomatic crisis with a resurgent India.

Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were deployed as guards on an Italian oil tanker under a new agreement against piracy when they allegedly shot and killed two fishermen they mistook for pirates on February 15.

They said their ship was approached by a smaller, fast-moving vessel.

Several observers have called into question Italy’s attempts to intervene in the case of the marines, who remain in custody in India, and critics say the country would have been better off involving the European Union in its diplomatic efforts.

‘The government has proceeded in fits and starts, following a wavering and therefore inevitably weak line,’ read an editorial in the Corriere della Sera daily this week after an Indian court sent the marines to prison.

The editorial said Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government, which came to power in November, had approached the case with ‘unjustified presumption.’

‘The facts of the last few days demonstrate that Italy does not have sufficient international stature to be negotiating from a position of force with a great power like India that is increasingly conscious of its status,’ it said.

Italy says the marines should be prosecuted in their homeland because the incident occurred on an Italian-flagged vessel in international waters.

India says the incident took place in its waters off the state of Kerala.

The Italian foreign ministry initially adopted a softly-softly diplomatic approach to the case.

But the rhetoric has been stepped up.

Junior foreign minister Staffan De Mistura, a former United Nations envoy to Iraq, was dispatched to India on February 21 and has been there ever since lobbying for the immediate release of the two men.

Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi on Saturday said the case represented an infringement of Italy’s national sovereignty and on Tuesday he summoned India’s ambassador to Rome, Debabrata Saha, to condemn the inquiry as illegitimate.

‘There is pressure in Italy, especially from representatives of the former government, for a more radical line,’ said Francesco Francioni, a law professor at the European University Institute near Florence.

Monti’s government ‘is beginning to feel under siege,’ he added.

Supporters of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, including ex-defence minister Ignazio La Russa, have called for a more strongarm approach and some have appealed for widely-respected President Giorgio Napolitano to step in.

Far-right activists have held small protests outside the Indian embassy and there have even been calls on Internet forums for a full scale boycott of Indian goods and of the growing number of Indian-owned businesses in Italy.

At a rally in the centre of Rome on Tuesday, activists held up a banner reading: ‘Stop playing at (Cowboys and) Indians, Free the Italian Sailors.’ Another sign with photos of the two men said: ‘Let’s save our marines.’

Lawmakers from the podium denounced a ‘weak’ government and called for ‘decisive action,’ as the protesters waved Italian flags.

Francioni said Italy should have moved more quickly to involve the European Union in its diplomacy and suggested one possible solution could be an appeal to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Germany.

‘A European approach would probably have been better for Italy, especially by involving countries that have more leverage like Britain. India is a great emerging power and is very aware of its political weight,’ he said.

La Repubblica daily reported that Monti himself was increasingly displeased with the foreign ministry seen as pursuing ‘a not very effective line’ and said the case had been a source of heated debate at a cabinet meeting this week.

Terzi’s high-profile visit to India at the end of February is being seen by the rest of the government as ‘a failure’, La Repubblica said.

It added: ‘This is the first stumble, the first headache that Super Mario’s government can’t resolve. In fact it’s getting worse by the day.’

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