HAMBURG (Reuters) - An international maritime tribunal on Monday rejected Italy's request that India provisionally release two marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen, a setback for the Italian government after a three-year legal battle.
However the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg also ordered India to suspend legal action against the two Italian marines, saying an international arbitration hearing to be held in The Hague must rule on the dispute.
Rome objects to holding a trial in India, arguing that the case should be taken to arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and that the incident happened in international waters where national laws do not apply.
The Indian government wants Indian courts to try the case.
The court decided by 15 judges' votes to six that Italy and India should suspend all proceedings which might aggravate or extend the dispute until the arbitration tribunal rules on the issue, tribunal president Judge Vladimir Golitsyn said in the ruling.
Italy and India must submit an initial report to the Arbitration Tribunal on Sept. 24. No date has yet been set for the tribunal to begin hearings.
The marines, part of a military team on anti-pirate duty protecting the Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie in 2012, say they mistook Indian fishermen for pirates and fired warning shots. Two fishermen were killed.
Marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone have been in legal limbo since their arrest in February 2012. Girone is in India but Latorre is in Italy after India allowed him to return home temporarily for medical treatment.
The fallout from the arrest of the marines has damaged wider relations between Italy and India, contributing to the collapse of a European Union-India summit planned during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to France and Germany this spring.
In April 2012, Rome paid $190,000 to each of the victims' families as compensation. In return, the families dropped their cases against the marines, but the Indian state's case has yet to come to trial.
India's Supreme Court allowed Latorre to return to Italy for heart surgery, which he underwent in January. In July, the court allowed him to stay in Italy for a further six months.
(Reporting by Michael Hogan; Editing by Louise Ireland)