India says U.S. could have avoided "mini-crisis"

NEW DELHI Sat Jan 11, 2014 7:07pm IST

1 of 2. Devyani Khobragade (C) leaves with her father Uttam Khobragade (L) from the Maharashtra Sadan state guesthouse to meet Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi January 11, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India on Saturday blamed the United States for a "mini crisis" over the arrest and strip search of an Indian envoy, and said more work was needed to repair ties a day after the withdrawal of diplomats seemed to draw a line under the row.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, who was India's deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested in December on charges of visa fraud and lying to U.S. authorities about what she paid her housekeeper. Khobragade's arrest and strip-search provoked protests in India and dealt a serious blow to U.S. efforts to strengthen ties.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said the United States should have warned senior officials visiting Washington a day before Khobragade's arrest by State Department security in December.

"It wasn't even mentioned," Khurshid told the CNN-IBN television network. He called the row a "mini crisis" and said India should have been given the chance to withdraw Khobragade before she was arrested.

He said the core of the U.S.-Indian relationship was very strong and that he didn't expect lasting damage from what has turned into the biggest rift in years.

"I think we've found that at least the immediate, immediate concerns have been addressed," Khurshid said. "But there's a lot more still to do."

He did not clarify what else must be done to avoid lasting damage to ties between the countries, who share some $100 billion in annual trade.

The two countries cooperate on a wide range of issues including counter-terrorism, regional security and defence. India is also a major market for U.S. weapons.

Khobragade returned to New Delhi on Friday following a deal that let her leave the United States after being indicted by a federal grand jury.

Since her return she has limited comment on the case to expressing thanks for the support she has received in India, where her treatment caused fury in the foreign service and broader antagonism towards the United States.

"I'm really grateful for all your support, my government will speak for me, my lawyer will speak for me," she told reporters on Saturday.

CALL FOR CLOSER COOPERATION

Khurshid said Washington should have asked India to withdraw Khobragade rather than arrest her.

"When you have two friendly countries when something is becoming untenable, then you cooperate with each other," he said.

"If you have inkling or a sense that something like this will unfold, you should take the quickest steps that you can to ensure that it doesn't happen."

India sharply curbed privileges offered to U.S. diplomats in retaliation for the treatment of Khobragade. Khurshid gave no sign these measures would be reversed.

India on Friday asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from New Delhi, in response to what was effectively the expulsion of Khobragade from the United States. An Indian official told reporters the government believed the U.S. diplomat had a role in the Khobragade case but gave no more details.

Washington has agreed to withdraw the envoy, who it did not identify. Citing sources, Indian media said the diplomat was a senior security official at the U.S. embassy who India believes helped the housekeeper Sangeeta Richard's husband flee to the United States despite a court injunction against him in Delhi.

The continued presence in the United States of the housekeeper could pose a challenge to Washington as it seeks to repair its relationship with New Delhi. India has asked U.S. authorities to arrest Richard over the Indian government's allegations that she stole cash, a mobile phone and documents from Khobragade. Richard has denied the charges.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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