"They are on their way back to Delhi," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
India had allowed the marines to travel to Italy – for the second time since their arrest – to vote in Italy's elections held last month. India's decision followed the Italian envoy in India Daniele Mancini's assurances to the Indian Supreme Court that the marines would return within four weeks.
However, ten days ago, Rome informed Indian government that the marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, will not be sent back to Delhi, triggering a diplomatic tussle between the countries.
Initially, though Italy remained stubborn claiming Indian courts have no rights to conduct the trial in the case, in an apparent turnaround Thursday agreed to send the marines to India.
The office of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti issued a statement late night Thursday, saying that marines have agreed to return to India.
“The government decided, also in the interest of the marines, to maintain the commitment taken when they were granted leave to return to India by March 22,” the statement said. “The marines agreed to this decision.”
Italy’s decision to send back the marines is being described as “diplomatic victory” by Indian government, but has exposed the ineptness of Italian diplomacy, political observers point out.
"Diplomacy continues to work when everyone else thinks that everything is lost," Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid told reporters, Friday.
The political observers feel the entire issue was unwarranted.
"The Italians didn't consider the matter seriously. They underestimated the Indian response. Once they saw that the script was not moving as they had anticipated they began to review the matter after treating the marines as heroes," a former top Indian diplomat Kanwal Sibal told BBC News.
"The fact that they decided to send them back projects Italian diplomacy in poor light. It also indicates sharp divisions in the government. Many in the government must have disagreed with Rome's decision not to send back the marines, otherwise they would not have reversed the decision," he added.
Italian media also had slammed their government for the clumsy handling of the marines’ issue, tarnishing the image of Italy abroad.
The Rome daily La Repubblica said the move by Premier Mario Monti's caretaker government "dealt a terrible blow to our credibility from the point of view of international image," the Associated Press reported.
India’s unrelenting demand for the return of the marines and its veiled threats to cutoff diplomatic relations with Rome had put the Italian government in a tight spot, as any such move could put considerable Italian business interests – like multi-billion defense deals – in India at stake.
Moreover, the Indian Supreme Court’s decision barring the Italian envoy from leaving India had taken Italy by surprise. Italy had expected that Mancini could invoke diplomatic immunity to escape the Supreme Court’s wrath. It had claimed that restraining the Italian envoy in India is against the Vienna Convention rules.
However, the Indian Supreme Court had observed that by giving personal and sovereign guarantee to the Supreme Court on behalf of Italy over the marines’ issue, Mancini had surrendered his diplomatic immunity.
Political analysts believe that Italy’s decision to respect the court commitment is nothing but an attempt to save face and avert further tensions in the bilateral issues.
Italy, in its statement claimed that it received ample assurances from the Indian government about the safety and “on the treatment the marines would receive and the defense of their fundamental rights." Interestingly, there were no allegations of mistreatment reported and even the marines had expressed happiness over the Indian treatment.
Italy also claimed it was given assurance that the marines will not be awarded death penalty in the case. Nevertheless, the charges levied against the marines at present do not attract capital punishment.
India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in his statement in the Indian parliament said the Italian marines will not get death sentence as the Indian fishermen killings case was not a rarest of rare case, according to an IBNLive report.
The grant of bail twice – once to celebrate Christmas and second time for voting in elections – was widely regarded as a gesture of goodwill by India and its Supreme Court, in both the countries. However, Italy’s breach of promise had put the approval of future bail applications from the marines at risk, as it remains to be seen whether Indian apex court would trust the guarantee from Italy again.
But, according to sources quoted by IBNLive news, there is a possibility that the marines could serve their prison term in Italy, as there is an agreement between the two countries on the transfer of prisoners.
The unsavory diplomatic row between the countries has ended for now, but dispute has cast a shadow of mistrust in bilateral relations, which the political analysts believe was unnecessary.