In a blow to Italy's attempt to internationalise the case of two Italian marines being tried in India for killing two fishermen, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked Rome to resolve the issue bilaterally.
"It's better for the question to be addressed bilaterally, rather than with the involvement of the UN," Ban was quoted as saying by Italian news agency ANSA, sparking fury in Italy.
His comments came a day after Italy petitioned the UN over the trial of the marines under a strict anti-piracy law and vowed to exercise "all options" to bring back its personnel.
Foreign Minister Emma Bonino told Italian parliament that she felt "great bitterness and perplexity" that Ban said the case was a "bilateral" issue.
She, however, added that Ban "guaranteed me comprehension and assured he would subsequently take action with the Indian authorities" over the case.
Marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone shot dead two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012, sparking diplomatic tensions between India and Italy.
Indian authorities have given their nod to the National Investigation Agency, which is probing the matter, to prosecute the marines under the Suppression of Unlawful Acts
against Safety of Maritime Navigation And Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act. The SUA carries death penalty.
India last week removed the possibility of a death penalty but insisted that the marines would still be prosecuted under the anti-piracy law. Now, they face up to 10 years in jail.
Italy said use of the terror law equates it with being a terrorist state.
Defence Minister Mario Mauro, meanwhile, said the case must also be won within the UN and acknowledged it as a global issue.
"On the case of the marines, the government has set clear two actions: one is the internationalisation of the case, so the tug of war with the UN must be won for this," Mauro said.
"One can't think it is a matter only between Italy and India, for one simple reason. It deals with two soldiers on a national mission, but which responds to a global society need, which is to put a stop to piracy and terrorism".
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the case could have "negative implications" for the fight against piracy, in which both the EU and NATO are engaged with major operations against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Ban's comments were seen as hand-washing by many in Italy.
"The UN has once again confirmed its expensive uselessness with the secretary-general, a marginal, irrelevant figure on the world arena, refusing to make the kidnapping of our marines in India an international issue," said Maurizio Gasparri, a Senator for ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party.
"Ban Ki-moon offends Italy by relegating the issue to the level of a dispute between our country and India, when we are faced with the arrogance of a pirate state with the respect to our soldiers".
On Monday, India's Supreme Court set February 18 as the next date for hearing arguments from both the sides on the use of the anti-piracy law. Italy had approached the apex court on January 15 amid fears that the NIA intends to prosecute the marines under the anti-terror law SUA.
The marines, deployed on the Italian-flagged oil tanker MT Enrica Lexie, said they mistook the fishermen for pirates. They are now staying in the Italian Embassy in New Delhi awaiting trial.
Rome wants the marines to be tried in Italy, claiming the incident took place in international waters. However, New Delhi says it has the right to try the Italians as the victims were Indians on board an Indian fishing boat.