New Delhi/Thurvananthapuram, Feb 16: India today lodged a strong protest with Italy after security personnel of an Italian ship mistook Kerala fishermen to be pirates and shot two of them dead.
Italian ambassador Gincomo Sanfelice ki Monteforte was summoned to the External Affairs Ministry and a protest was lodged.
The Italian ship Enrica Lexie was near Alappuzha on Wednesday night, when it mistook 11 Indian fishermen to be pirates.
Ministry of External Affairs officials said that the 11 fishermen were in their boat, when the Italian ship came close to them.
While nine of those on board were sleeping, two were awake. These two fishermen - Ajesh Binki (25) and Jalastein (45) - were killed when the guards of Enrica Lexie opened fire.
The Directorate General of Shipping said that the Italian ship was carrying six armed guards and an enquiry has been ordered into the tragic incident.
"It has been reported to this Directorate that the Italian flagged MV Enrica Lexie, resorted to firing on an Indian fishing vessel in position 09 20N 075 52E (heading 345 speed 14 kts) at 1700 Hrs on 15th February 2012.
"The vessel MV Enrica Lexie is carrying six Italian armed guards. The firing has reportedly resulted in the death of two Indian fishermen. The vessel was bound from Singapore to Egypt with a crew of 19 Indians.
"The Coast Guard intercepted the vessel and escorted her to Kochi for investigation. The vessel has anchored at Kochi on 15th February 2012 at 2300hrs (IST).
"The Principal Officer, MMD Kochi has been directed to conduct the preliminary inquiry into this incident resulting in the loss of life of two innocent Indian fishermen," the Directorate said in a press release.
Earlier, the Italian Embassy claimed that the Italian navy personnel on board Enrica Lexie fired warning shots after they were allegedly attacked in international waters by the men on the Indian fishing vessel.
"The Italian ship was attacked yesterday in international waters about 30 nautical miles of the south west coast of India. Italian navy personnel on board following international protocols after repeated warnings and after ascertaining from binoculars that the pirates were armed gradually fired some warning shots and the pirates withdrew.
" Later, the master of the Italian ship was contacted by the Indian coast guards and requested to direct towards the Kochi harbour to offer information on the pirate attack.
"The master agreed and the ship is now in Kochi harbour. We are in touch with the Indian authorities and we shall work together to clarify all aspects of the incident," the Italian Embassy said in a statement on Thursday.
The Italian ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte said that the crew would co-operate with the Indian police and added that the facts of the case were not clear.
Calling the firing a sad incident, di Monteforte said that the ship came in voluntarily into the Kochi dock.
Additional Director General (South Zone) Kerala Police P Chandrashekhar, however, said that the fishermen did not fire at the Italians ship, and could not have been mistaken for pirates.
"The fishermen did not fire at the ship. The Indian boat was 100 meters from the ship. The boat wanted the ship to pass," said Chandrashekhar.
The Independent Fishworkers' Association of Kerala condemned the incident and claimed that the fishermen were innocent.
"There were about 11 fishermen on the boat who were taking a nap after laying the nets. Without any prior warning they heard gunshots and in this firing two of them were killed.
"Even If they were found in suspicious circumstances, the foreign vessel does not have the right to open fire like this.
"They need to first inform Coast Guard and other Indian authorities. We condemn this act. We are going to launch protests not only in the state, but nationwide," said Independent Fishworkers' Association, Kerala, President T Peter.
"They are survived by wife and children and were only in the sea to earn a living. How could they be killed so cruelly? We want the Italian merchant navy crew to be taken to custody immediately and murder charges should be slapped against those who fired," added Peter.
The bodies of the fishermen have been recovered and the Italian ship is presently docked at the Kochi port. The police is quizzing the Enrica Lexie's captain and is trying to determine why were there armed men on a merchant ship.
A defence spokesperson earlier said that the Indian Coast Guard district headquarters number four launched CGS Samar, CGS Lakshmibhai and an aircraft to pursue the Italian ship. The aircraft located the ship and asked the vessel to come to anchorage off Kochi for detailed investigation.
"INS Kabra from the Southern Naval Command has also been put to sea for the operation," he said.
The other fisherman said that 9 of them were sleeping when they heard the gunshots.
Fishermen in Kollam said the fishing boat, which left Kollam in Kerala a week back, was on its way back when the incident occurred.
Meanwhile, the Kerala government has announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the dead fishermen's families. The district administration, too, announced an emergency relief payment of Rs 10,000 each for the family of those killed.
Fellow fishermen, who were in the same boat as Binki and Jalastein, said the boat had 11 fishermen, out of which two had been hit in the firing.