HANOI (Reuters) - Police manhandled the wives of Vietnamese dissidents to prevent them from meeting the U.S. Ambassador and a congresswoman for tea, the diplomat and the legislator said on Friday.
Ambassador Michael Marine said he intervened and asked the two women to go home because "the situation was at risk of spiraling out of control" on the street outside his residence in central Hanoi on Thursday.
"It was 15 men surrounding two women. They were speaking in loud voices and grabbing their upper arms," Marine told a news conference at the end of a U.S. congressional visit.
Earlier on Friday, U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, a frequent critic of the communist government and its detention of political activists, told reporters police stopped some of the invited women from leaving their homes.
"Barricades went up in the streets near their homes, movements were restricted," said Sanchez, a Republican whose district in California has the largest Vietnamese population outside of the Southeast Asian country.
Vietnam's arrest this year of several political activists opposed to one-party rule has created friction between the two former war enemies, whose strong ties are founded on trade and military ties.
But Washington wants Vietnam to give its citizens greater freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
"I am a firm believer that the overall relationship is better now than it has ever been but that does not mean we can paper over our differences," Marine said. "We need to work together and to breach those differences in a constructive, frank way."
Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung said in a statement that Sanchez "has never had an objective attitude or showed real interest in promoting Vietnam-U.S. ties.
"She again demonstrated lack of goodwill with her unsuitable remarks, interfering in the internal affairs of Vietnam."
On Thursday, Marine called for the release of two Hanoi lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, who were arrested on March 6 on charges of "propagandizing against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam".
He also urged Vietnam to release four other people, including Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly who was sentenced to eight years in prison last week for anti-government activity.
Those invited to the tea with the Ambassador included wives of jailed Internet writer Nguyen Vu Binh, lawyers Le Quoc Quan and Nguyen Van Dai. The mother of lawyer Nhan was also invited.
Another was the wife of "cyber-dissident" Pham Hong Son, who was jailed after translating an article "What is Democracy" from a U.S. State Department web site. Son was released in August last year but lives under restrictions.