NEW DELHI (AFP) - Two Italian marines flew back to India on Friday to face murder charges, after Rome dramatically reversed a decision that they would not return which had triggered a diplomatic firestorm.
The Indian government hailed Italy's U-turn as a success for diplomacy after being earlier accused of violating international laws on diplomatic immunity.
Italy meanwhile said it had received assurances about the pair's treatment, with the country's President Giorgio Napolitano paying tribute to the "sense of responsibility" displayed by the two marines.
Italy caused outrage in India earlier this month by announcing that Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone would not return to India after they were given leave to vote in an election, reneging on pledges made at the Supreme Court.
But in a late night U-turn which came only hours before a deadline for the pair's return, the Italian government said it had received "ample assurances" from India that the marines' rights would be respected.
"The government decided, also in the interests of the marines, to maintain the commitment taken when they were granted leave to take part in the elections to return to India by March 22," said a government statement.
"The marines agreed to this decision," it added.
India's foreign ministry confirmed that the pair had taken an overnight flight and were expected to land in New Delhi on Friday morning.
"They are on their way back to Delhi," ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told AFP.
The marines' lawyer said he did not expect them to appear in court on Friday.
"My clients will not appear in court today. There is no requirement for them to do so," Mr Diljeet Titus told AFP. "I expect to speak with them later today."
While Mr Akbaruddin said the marines' return was "no occasion for gloating", there was a sense of satisfaction in the Indian government about the Italian change of heart.
In brief comments to reporters, India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid on Friday hailed Italy's decision as a success for diplomacy.
"Diplomacy continues to work when everyone else thinks that everything is lost," he said.
Mr R.P.N. Singh, a minister in India's home affairs ministry, tweeted: "India's tough stand as articulated by the PM ...(has) worked."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had warned of "consequences" if Rome did not return the marines while Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the ruling Congress
party, had accused Italy of a "betrayal".
After Italy said on March 11 that the marines would not return, Indian authorities forbade Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country, saying he had broken a written promise to the supreme court.
New Delhi even put its airports on alert to prevent Mr Mancini from leaving, prompting accusations that India was violating international laws on diplomatic immunity.
Italy had been insisting the pair should be prosecuted in their home country because the shootings involved an Italian-flagged vessel in international waters. India says the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.
The two are accused of having shot dead two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates off the Indian port of Kochi last year. They were serving as security guards on an Italian oil tanker.
Relations between the two countries have also been soured by corruption allegations surrounding a US$748 million (S$944 million) deal for the purchase of 12 Italian helicopters, which the Indian government is now threatening to scrap.
The case has been a severe embarrassment to the Singh government, with the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party accusing Italy of treating India like a "banana republic".