The killing on Wednesday, by Italian naval personnel stationed on an oil tanker, of two fishermen who had set out to sea from the Neendakara fishing harbour in Kerala, is threatening to escalate into a diplomatic row.

The coastal police on Thursday registered a case of murder against the guards of the ship.

Even as the threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean has led governments and private companies to deploy armed guards on board, the latest killings have focussed attention on the potentially lethal outcomes of the practice.

“There is no doubt that the shooting took place in Indian territorial waters,” a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson told The Hindu in New Delhi. “We told Italy we expect its full cooperation with the investigation.”

Italian Ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte was summoned by the MEA on Thursday. Mr. di Monteforte later said his country's Navy had followed procedures before opening fire, but promised cooperation. “What I want to underline,” he said, “is that the Italian ship moved voluntarily into the Kochi port.”

Defence Minister A.K. Antony described the killings as “very serious and unfortunate.” “At this stage,” he said in New Delhi, “saying too much is not correct. But I can tell you law will take its own course.” Italian news agency Agenzia Giornalistica Italia had earlier reported that naval riflemen from the San Marco Battalion had “thwarted an attempt made by pirates to board the ship 30 miles west of the southern Indian coast.” “The soldiers,” it said, had “followed procedures, opening fire three times so as to dissuade them. After the third volley the pirates left.”

Vice-Admiral K.N. Sushil, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command, told The Hindu in Kochi that there was no evidence to show that the vessel had been attacked.

“It is crystal-clear that the fishermen were unarmed and were not attempting to come alongside the tanker to board it,” the Vice-Admiral said. “As the tanker crew claims to have been fired upon, I sent the fast-attack craft INS Kabra to ascertain if there were bullet marks on it. It went around the ship to find that there were none.”

Last year, Indian naval operations led to more than 100 arrests following attacks on merchant ships by Somali pirates. However, the continued threat has led many governments to allow military and private armed guards been stationed onboard ships transiting through the Indian Ocean. In January alone, 37 ships were attacked. Ten vessels and 159 crew members are being held hostage in Somalia.

(With inputs from New Delhi Bureau)

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