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New Delhi - India on Friday ousted a U.S. diplomat from the embassy here, hours after the departure from the United States of an Indian consular officer who was asked to leave after she was indicted on charges of visa fraud.
The State Department confirmed that the unidentified American diplomat had left New Delhi "at the request of the government of India" and voiced a mix of disappointment at the apparent tit-for-tat move and cautious optimism that it could settle the bitter month-long dispute.
"We deeply regret that the Indian government felt it was necessary to expel one of our diplomatic personnel," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "This has clearly been a challenging time in the U.S.-India relationship. We expect and hope that this will now come to closure, and the Indians will take significant steps with us to improve our relationship."
The Indian consular officer, Devyani Khobragade, 39, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on Thursday on charges of visa fraud and making false statements regarding the employment of a domestic worker. She is accused of trying to circumvent U.S. wage requirements by submitting to visa authorities a falsified contract for her nanny, Sangeeta Richard, whom she brought from India to work in her home.
Indian officials said late Thursday that Khobragade - who had been working as India's deputy consul general in New York - would arrive in India early today. A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the State Department asked India to arrange Khobragade's departure from the country hours before the indictment was announced.
In New Delhi, meanwhile, officials asked the United States to withdraw a diplomat they said was involved in problematic U.S. actions last month, including the evacuation of Richard's family. They said his rank was similar to Khobragade's.
Neither government would publicly identify the expelled U.S. diplomat, but officials said he is Wayne May, the head of the embassy's diplomatic security contingent, who has been in India since 2010.
The diplomat allegedly took "unilateral actions" to speed the departure of Richard's family from India to be with her in New York and violated other procedures in an effort to help her, said an Indian official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
He would not give details.
"In India, this will be seen as legitimate and reciprocal response, because our diplomat was sent out of the United States; today's action by India evens the field," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States. "Now we should get back to our strategic partnership."
Psaki expressed similar sentiments. "We are eager to move forward," she said. Psaki declined to comment on whether the reciprocal Indian action had been anticipated.
Khobragade's arrest last month - she was handcuffed, strip-searched and briefly incarcerated - outraged Indians across the political spectrum. Senior officials called her treatment "barbaric" and "inhuman," and the government took several measures to show its displeasure, including removing security barricades from outside the U.S. Embassy and investigating the working spouses of some U.S. diplomats.
The spat has threatened to derail Washington's relationship with India, which President Barack Obama in 2010 called "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."
Before the indictment was handed down Thursday, the State Department had agreed to accredit Khobragade to work at India's U.N. mission with a higher level of diplomatic immunity. But the immunity is not retroactive, and the charges against her are "pending until such time as she can be brought to court to face them" in a non-immune status, said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan.
Khobragade's husband and children are U.S. citizens.
Uttam Khobragade, the diplomat's father, said it was a "patriotic act" by his daughter to reject "feelers" being offered by U.S. prosecutors, who he said had advised her to pay a settlement to Richards in return for staying in the United States. He said the case should be adjudicated by an Indian court.
"What Devyani was fighting was to uphold the sovereignty of this country and dignity of the judicial system," Uttam Khobragade said at a news conference in New Delhi. "She sacrificed the personal comfort which was being offered to uphold the sovereignty."
In India, a popular news portal called Firstpost ran an essay Friday saying that India was the loser in the diplomatic dispute.
"The situation as it stands now is a mere stalemate - and totally unsatisfactory from an Indian point of view," the essay said. "There is clearly more we need to do to set Indo-US relations on a foundation of respect and reciprocity."
"Bringing Khobragade back is our defeat, not our victory, because the case against her in America will go on," said Yashwant Sinha, a senior leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
"It is evident that Indian arguments have had no impact on America."