Two Italian marines have arrived back in India's capital, New Delhi, to face murder charges following a last-minute climbdown by their government, ending a bitter diplomatic standoff between the countries.

Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, accused of shooting two Indian fishermen, touched down in an Italian military plane in the evening on Friday after being flown from their homeland, Syed Akbaruddin, Indian foreign ministry spokesman, told AFP news agency.

Italy's government on Thursday reversed a March 11 decision not to send the marines back from a home visit after Rome secured a promise from New Delhi that the two would not face the death penalty if convicted, officials said.

The marines, part of a military security team protecting a tanker from piracy, are accused of shooting two fishermen off the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala in February last year.

They say they fired warning shots at a fishing boat believing it to be a pirate vessel.

President Giorgio Napolitano paid tribute to the pair's "sense of responsibility" in agreeing to return.

India and Italy have been embroiled in an escalating row over the marines, who had been allowed home to vote in the
Italian elections in February on condition they returned to India by Friday.

The Indian government, which last week issued orders to immigration authorities to prevent Rome's ambassador to New Delhi from leaving the country, hailed Italy's U-turn as a victory for diplomacy.

The decision to return the marines has stirred anger in Italy and calls for Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi to resign.

Michele Emiliano, the mayor of Girone's hometown of Bari, said he had been comforting the marine's "despairing" family.

"A hypocritical government is trying to end its embarrassment by sending the sailors back to India after exhibiting them as 'free' during the election campaign," Emiliano wrote on Twitter.

Foreign Minister Terzi defended the move in an interview with la Repubblica daily on Friday, rejecting calls from centre-right politicians for him to quit.

Source: Agencies