By D. Jose
KOCHI, India (Reuters) - Two Italian marines charged with killing two fishermen off the coast of India are likely to spend Christmas in Italy, after an Indian court on Thursday accepted the sailors' request to be allowed to join their families for the holiday season.
The two sailors, members of a military security team protecting the cargo ship Enrica Lexie from pirate attacks, shot the fishermen they say they mistook for pirates off the southern state of Kerala in February, sparking a diplomatic row between New Delhi and Rome.
Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are out on bail in the Indian state but not permitted to leave the country. They will be required to hand over 60 million rupees ($1.1 million) as a bank guarantee to the court before leaving. The sailors have to report back to India on January 10.
"It is a moment of great joy, our hearts are dancing. The greatest Christmas present has arrived for us," Vania Ardito, Girone's wife, told Italian news agency Ansa.
The Kerala high court said its decision to allow the men back home for two weeks was contingent on the Indian government's approval.
While awaiting trial in New Delhi's Supreme Court in connection with the shooting deaths, the men filed a petition last week to the Kerala high court asking to celebrate Christmas back home.
The Italian government submitted an undertaking that the marines would be in its custody during their stay and would take responsibility for their timely return to India.
The Kerala state government had opposed the sailors' plea, suspecting Italy of trying to smuggle the men out of India and feared that the sailors may not return.
New Delhi is likely to approve the sailors' departure with India's foreign ministry having already asked the court to consider Rome's case in light of the "excellent" relations between the two countries.
The foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.
Last week, Italian authorities summoned India's ambassador in Rome and expressed "strong disappointment" that the Supreme Court had delayed a decision on where the men would face trial.
Italy argues that the Supreme Court should rule the shooting took place in international waters, outside India's jurisdiction, allowing the marines to be tried in Rome.
Indian authorities accuse the sailors of killing unarmed fishermen in a "contiguous zone" where Indian law applies.
While visiting the marines in Kerala last week, Italy's Defence Minister, Giampaolo Di Paolo, pinned his hopes on India allowing the men home for Christmas, saying "nobody more than India knows the values of festivities".
Italy petitioned India's Supreme Court after the Kerala High Court said the marines were liable to be tried under Indian law. In India, state level judiciaries are responsible for law and order on their territory.
(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary in ROME, writing by Annie Banerji, editing by Matthias Williams and Ron Popeski)