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article imageIndia says US diplomat row sparked 'mini-crisis'

By Penelope Macrae (AFP)     Jan 11, 2014 in World

India on Saturday said a bitter row over the US arrest and strip-search of an Indian consulate official had triggered a "mini-crisis" in bilateral relations and much more must be done to repair ties.

Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid's remarks came a day after New Delhi gave a US diplomat 48 hours to quit the country over a dispute that has sent tensions between the two countries soaring.

In a sign India is not letting matters drop, Khurshid said the government would keep pressing for withdrawal of charges against Devyani Khobragade, who was India's deputy New York consul-general at the time of her arrest for alleged visa fraud.

He described the episode as a "mini crisis" during an interview with the CNN-IBN television network on Saturday.

"It's an incident that shouldn't have happened, we have to find some resolution," Khurshid said, adding "immediate concerns have been addressed" but "there is a lot more still to do" to repair relations with Washington.

Shortly before Khobragade's indictment Thursday, the US granted the Indian officer -- who has denied all charges -- full diplomatic immunity, allowing her to fly home to India.

Initially, observers believed Khobragade's return signalled tensions had been defused.

But an announcement late Friday that India had ordered a US diplomat to leave in apparent reprisal for its envoy's treatment in New York suggested New Delhi was still angry.

The exact timing of the US diplomat's departure from India was unclear as the US embassy was not returning phone calls.

Indian newspapers named the diplomat as Wayne May, saying he managed security staff and was of "similar rank" to Khobragade.

The deeply unpopular Congress government, struggling to win back favour in general elections due by May, has been under heavy domestic political pressure to act tough with Washington.

Lawmakers have denounced the Indian diplomat's treatment as a violation of national sovereignty and said Washington should not be allowed to ride roughshod over Indian interests.

Ties began fraying last month when Khobragade was arrested on charges of visa fraud involving her domestic servant and lying about how she paid her.

Khobragade allegedly obtained a visa for her maid by promising to pay her $4,500 a month and then struck a deal to pay her 30,000 rupees ($573) a month, far below the US minimum wage.

News of the US embassy official's expulsion was splashed over Indian newspapers along with photos of Khobragade arriving home late Friday, her palms pressed together in a traditional Indian greeting.

"I am really thankful for all your support. My government will speak for me, my lawyer will speak for me," Khobragade, 39, who left her husband and two children behind in the United States, told reporters Saturday.

"No standoff"

During his television interview, Khurshid added India had not engaged in retaliation against Washington, calling its actions "an appropriate response".

He told reporters earlier in the day there was "no standoff between India and the US", saying "if there are any issues" the countries will "sort them out mutually".

Still, Khurshid told the TV network Saturday evening there was no chance of restoring extra privileges to US diplomats in New Delhi, withdrawn after the Indian diplomat's arrest.

India has given the embassy a January 16 deadline to stop commercial activities at its leisure centre where non-diplomats pay thousands of dollars a year to use the pool and gym as well as the low-cost bar and restaurant.

"If they were friends taking extra concessions, those extra concessions may have been discretionary, given to them from time to time," Khurshid said.

"But when you take stock... then it becomes important that you put everything in line," he said.

The United States said late Friday it "deeply regrets" India's expulsion of the US official and wanted to mend a partnership Washington has seen as a potential bulwark against China's growing might.

The Indian diplomat's arrest outside her children's school and treatment in custody, where she was cavity searched, outraged India, which insisted she had diplomatic immunity.

While Americans took the maid's side, many affluent Indians who pay their servants far less than Khobragade was accused of paying hers, supported the diplomat and viewed her treatment as high-handed superpower behaviour.

Even traditional US supporters were angered by Washington's actions.

"The US is so good at arm-twisting -- India is just playing their game," the national president of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, Chella Srinivasan, told AFP in a recent interview.

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