NEW DELHI– The detention of two Italian naval officers over the fatal shooting last week of two Indians at sea has caused a diplomatic rift that deepened Wednesday, exposing the risks countries run by increasing the use of arms on commercial vessels to deter piracy.

In the past week since two Indian fishermen died in a boat off the southwest coast of India, neither India nor Italy has been able to provide a clear picture of what happened.

And they disagree over the next steps for the naval officers, prompting a diplomatic spat that saw Staffan de Mistura, Italy’s deputy foreign minister, visit New Delhi on Wednesday, though he failed to end the dispute. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi is scheduled to arrive in India next week.

The standoff comes amid increasing concern among ship owners and Western governments about piracy, especially from Somalia operations, that has led many of them to travel with armed guards.

(This story and related background material will be available on The Wall Street Journal website, WSJ.com.)

Some countries, including Italy and France, have begun to post military officials on board merchant ships to provide security. A number of others, including India last year, have issued guidelines allowing merchant ships to hire private contractors to provide security.

Italy changed its laws in August to allow groups of six Italian Navy marines to travel on commercial ships. There are currently 60 marines seconded on this kind of duty. Italian cargo ships often pass near Somalia, which accounted for 13 of the 37 incidents of piracy recorded so far this year by the International Maritime Bureau.

Indian authorities are investigating whether Italian naval officers seconded to the Italian-registered oil tanker Enrica Lexie mistakenly fired on an Indian boat, believing it to be a pirate craft, and killed the two fishermen.

Police in the southern Indian state of Kerala are holding for questioning Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone, two of the six Italian marines who were on board, but haven’t filed formal charges against them. The men weren’t available to comment.

Italian authorities said that naval personnel on the Enrica Lexie fired warning shots into the air and water to warn off the other boat as it got too near but deny they shot at the craft.

Italy says the vessel, which was traveling from Sri Lanka to Djibouti, was in international waters, meaning the incident fell outside India’s jurisdiction.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry claims the Navy officers are covered by immunity from prosecution in a foreign country. Rome says it should prosecute the case, and authorities there opened an investigation on Tuesday.

New Delhi contends immunity doesn’t apply in this case because the Navy officers were on a private ship. Indian officials say its laws apply because the dead men were Indian.

While ship owners have pushed for beefed up security, some observers are worried about the increasing number of weapons on commercial ships.

“What we’re concerned about is that armed guards will mistake fishermen for pirates,” said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. “In some cases, fisherman act like pirates”– when close to other vessels– “to protect their nets.”

The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for maritime safety, decided last year not to push for international rules to govern the use of armed guards on commercial ships but allowed national governments to decide.

It did, however, publish guidelines in September for states seeking to allow private guards on commercial shipping. Those guidelines warned of a “possible escalation of violence which could result from the use of firearms and carriage of armed personnel on board ships.”

Shipping companies and sailors’ unions have backed moves for more security. “Piracy has become so deadlyand widespread that we all have had to accept the use of properly regulated and trained onboardarmed guards– military or private,” said Dave Heindel, head of the seafarers section of the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation.

“The entire industry has balanced the risks involved in onboarddetachments and decided that they are justified by the success and brutalityof the pirates,” he added.

An international conference in London on Thursday over how to end years of civil war in Somalia will also focus on the piracy problem. SOS SaveOurSeafarers, a grouping of 30 maritime organizations aimed at raising awareness of piracy, says joint naval operations by governments, combined with industry self-protection measures, helped reduce hijackings by Somali pirates to 25 last year from 46 in 2009.

Indian ships, too, have faced attacks by Somali pirates, whose reach stretches across the Indian Ocean, and India’s Navy has detained scores of Somalis in the past few years. But there is also evidence of homegrown piracy off the coast of Kerala.

On Feb. 15, the same day the incident involving the Enrica Lexie occurred, a Greek crude oil tanker at anchor just 2.5 nautical miles off Kochi, a city in Kerala, called the International Maritime Bureau to say that about 20 armed men had tried to board but aborted the attack.

For Italy, whose ships regularly pass Somalia on the way to the Suez Canal, allowing navy detachments on commercial vessels is a way to ensure its trade doesn’t suffer, said Giuseppe Severini, judicial advisor to Italy’s defense ministry. “Countering piracy is in Italy’s economic interest,” he said.

But as the standoff with India shows, the new policies can also lead to confrontation over what laws apply to military officials on commercial ships.

Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, says the naval officers would have had immunity from prosecution if they had been on a military ship– but that’s not the case here. “It’s an international grey area and we’re caught in it,” he said.

Severini demurred. “It doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “They are carrying out a public duty.”

-By Tom Wright and Margherita Stancati, The Wall Street Journal

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