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Vietnam Says U.S. Official Punched Bystander, Made ‘Disturbance’

Vietnam’s state-run media said an American diplomat created a "public disturbance" and punched a bystander in the face this week, escalating a diplomatic dispute after the U.S. protested his treatment.

U.S. Embassy Officer Christian Marchant yelled obscenities in English and Vietnamese Jan. 5 after local authorities approached him in the central city of Hue, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported today. Marchant was in Hue to visit a dissident Catholic priest, the American embassy said.

The U.S. "lodged a strong, official protest" following a "clear violation of international law," embassy spokesman Christopher Hodges said by phone yesterday without giving details. Police wrestled Marchant to the ground as he tried to visit Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a human-rights advocate under house arrest, Radio Free Asia said yesterday.

The row with the U.S. takes place amid increased international focus on Vietnam ahead of the Communist Party Congress next week, which will choose the country’s top leaders. New York-based Human Rights Watch last year called on Vietnam to end what it called an ongoing crackdown on lawyers and rights activists.

Vietnamese authorities are reviewing the Jan. 5 incident, the foreign ministry said yesterday.

Vietnam has convicted or arrested 39 political dissidents since October 2009, according to the U.S. State Department. Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 165 out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index, and lists the country as one of 15 "Internet Enemies" for imprisoning bloggers and censoring political expression.

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