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U.S., India meet to get ties back on track after dispute

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade (L) and her father Uttam Khobragade talk to unidentified guests at the Maharashtra Sadan state guesthouse
Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade (L) and her father Uttam Khobragade talk to unidentified guests at the Maharashtra Sadan state guesthouse

By David Brunnstrom and Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. diplomat met India's ambassador to the United States on Tuesday with the aim of getting bilateral ties back on track after the arrest and strip search of a female Indian diplomat and tit-for-tat expulsions.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns hosted a "productive" lunch meeting with Indian Ambassador S. Jaishankar and both sides affirmed the importance of the U.S.-India strategic partnership and "discussed initial preparations for a range of upcoming bilateral meetings and exchanges," a statement from the U.S. State Department said.

"They agreed that the past several weeks have been challenging, and affirmed that we are both committed to moving forward to resume cooperation on the broad range of bilateral issues," the statement said.

The two officials also discussed matters raised by India's Foreign Ministry during the dispute, including alleged issues with the American Embassy School, the statement said. Burns said Washington took the concerns "very seriously and will continue to address them via appropriate diplomatic channels."

The statement said both Burns and Jaishankar "affirmed our shared commitment to continue joint U.S.-India work on issues such as clean energy and climate change, defense, economic and trade engagement, counterterrorism, and civil nuclear development."

On Saturday, India blamed the United States for what it called a "mini crisis" over the arrest and strip search of its deputy consul general in New York last month and said more work was needed to repair ties.

The Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, was arrested in December on charges of visa fraud and lying to U.S. authorities about what she paid her housekeeper. Her treatment provoked protests in India and dealt a serious blow to U.S. efforts to strengthen ties.

TIT FOR TAT

India sharply curbed privileges offered to U.S. diplomats in retaliation and asked Washington on Friday to withdraw a diplomat from New Delhi in response to Khobragade's effective expulsion from the United States last week.

As part of its measures, India last week ordered the U.S. Embassy to close a club for expatriate Americans in New Delhi and a government source said it was also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspected may be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements.

The dispute also led to the postponement of two high-level visits by U.S. officials, including one by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for Khobragade asked a U.S. judge to throw out the charges against her, arguing that her diplomatic status, granted by the State Department last week as part of a deal that saw her leave the country, gave her absolute immunity from prosecution, even for incidents that allegedly occurred before her accreditation.

If Judge Shira Scheindlin were to dismiss the indictment, that would presumably permit Khobragade, whose husband and children are U.S. citizens, to travel freely to the United States. State Department officials have said they do not believe her immunity is retroactive.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said on the weekend the United States should have warned senior officials visiting Washington a day before Khobragade's arrest. He added, however, that the core of the U.S.-Indian relationship was very strong and that he did not expect lasting damage from what has turned into the biggest rift in years.

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

(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Ken Wills, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)

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