South American states angered at diversion of Morales flight

Bolivia seeks explanation after plane rerouted amid concerns it carried US whistleblower

Bolivian President Evo Morales waves from his plane before leaving the Vienna International Airport today: Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Bolivian President Evo Morales waves from his plane before leaving the Vienna International Airport today: Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters


Heads of state in the South American bloc Unasur today strenuously rejected the diversion of Bolivian president Evo Morales’s aircract in Europe due to suspicions it was carrying US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The group demanded an explanation for “unfriendly and unjustifiable acts”.

In a statement from Peru’s government, which holds the rotating presidency of the group, the leaders expressed their outrage and indignation because Morales’s flight was not permitted to land in Portugal and France yesterday.

Bolivian authorities said they were denied landing space because of unfounded speculation that the former US spy contractor was on board.

Bolivia’s president left Europe for home amid diplomatic drama, a day after his flight was rerouted and delayed in Austria amid suggestions he was trying to spirit Mr Snowden away.

Bolivia demanded an explanation from various European countries it accused of thwarting President Evo Morales’s flight. French officials denied they refused to let the plane cross their airspace amid suspicions that Mr Snowden was aboard. Spain, too, said the plane had been free to cross its territory.

Low on fuel, the plane carrying Morales home from Moscow was rerouted to Austria last night, in a new twist to the international uproar over Mr Snowden and the widespread US surveillance that he revealed. It took off again from Vienna today.

Bolivian and Austrian officials both say Mr Snowden was not on the plane.

It began as a seemingly offhand remark by Mr Morales, who suggested during a visit to Moscow that he might be happy to host Mr Snowden.

It escalated into a major diplomatic scramble in which the Bolivian president’s plane was rerouted yesterday, apparently because of suspicions that Mr Snowden was aboard.

Mr Snowden is believed to be in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries. Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations continued to insist that several European countries had refused permission for the plane to fly in their airspace. Sacha Llorenti said it was an “act of aggression” and that France, Portugal, Spain and Italy violated international law.

He said “the orders came from the United States” but other nations violated the immunity of the president and his plane, putting his life at risk.

Bolivia said that France, Portugal and Italy blocked the plane from flying over their territories based on unfounded rumours that Mr Snowden was on board. Bolivia said Spain agreed to allow the plane to refuel in the Canary Islands — but only if Bolivian authorities agreed to allow it to be inspected.

Spain’s foreign ministry said it authorised the plane to fly within its airspace and to make the Canary Islands refuelling stop and gave the authorisation again after Bolivian authorities repeated the request.

Austria said that the aircraft’s pilot asked controllers at Vienna airport to land because there was “no clear indication” that the plane had enough fuel to continue on its journey. “We don’t know who invented this lie” that Mr Snowden was travelling with Morales, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said. “We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of president Evo Morales.”

Bolivian vice president Alvaro Garcia described Mr Morales as being “kidnapped by imperialism” in Europe.

On Monday, Morales, who was attending an energy conference in Moscow, was asked in an interview on the Russia Today television network if he would consider giving asylum to Mr Snowden, 30, who has been holed up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for more than a week, his passport revoked by the United States.

“Yes, why not?” Mr Morales responded. “Of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce - I don’t know if this is espionage or monitoring. We are here.”

He said, though, that Bolivia had not received a request from Mr Snowden, despite news reports to the contrary. It was already clear by then that the Moscow conference had been overshadowed by the saga of Mr Snowden and his disclosures about American intelligence programs, which have deeply embarrassed the Obama administration.

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who was also at the conference, had suggested he might offer Mr Snowden asylum but did not plan to fly him to Venezuela.

On Monday, Portugal, without explanation, had withdrawn permission for Mr Morales’ plane to stop in Lisbon to refuel, the foreign minister said. That forced Bolivian officials to get permission from Spain to refuel in the Canary Islands.

The next day, after taking off from Moscow, Mr Morales’ plane was just minutes from entering French airspace, according to Mr Saavedra, when the French authorities informed the pilot that the plane could not fly over France.

There was also plenty of confusion in Moscow over how Mr Snowden could possibly have left undetected on a government aircraft. Government planes carrying foreign officials to diplomatic meetings in Moscow typically arrive and depart from Vnukovo Airport, which is also the main airfield used by the Russian government, rather than at Sheremetyevo, where Snowden arrived from Hong Kong on June 23 hours after US officials had sought his extradition there.

The speculation that Mr Snowden would hitch a ride on a government jet was discounted by the fact that the plane would have to first make a quick flight from one Moscow airport to the other.

In an interview with the television station Russia Today, Mr Maduro said that he would consider any request by Snowden. Then, ending the interview with a dash of humor, he said, “It’s time for me to go; Snowden is waiting for me.”

Leaks by Mr Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst, have revealed the sweeping data collection of US phone records and some Internet traffic, although U.S. intelligence officials have said the programs target foreigners and terrorist suspects mostly overseas.

AP/New York Times