Evo Morales’ flight was rerouted and delayed in Austria, allegedly because of suspicion he was trying to spirit NSA leaker Edward Snowden to Latin America.
PARIS — Bolivia’s president left Europe for home on Wednesday in a flurry of diplomatic drama after his flight was rerouted and delayed in Austria, allegedly because of suspicion he was trying to spirit NSA leaker Edward Snowden to Latin America.
Bolivia accused the United States of ordering European countries to block President Evo Morales’ flight from their airspace, and accused European governments of “aggression” by thwarting the flight.
However it’s still unclear whether European countries did block the plane and, if so, why. French, Spanish and Portuguese officials all said Wednesday the plane was allowed to cross their territory.
Morales sparked speculation during a visit to Russia after he said that his country would be willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden. Snowden is believed to be stuck in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries.
The plane carrying Morales home from a Moscow summit was rerouted to Vienna on Tuesday night, adding a new twist to the international uproar over Snowden’s revelations of widespread U.S. surveillance. The plane took off again shortly before noon Wednesday after sitting overnight at the airport.
Austrian officials said Morales’ plane was searched early Wednesday by Austrian border police after Morales gave permission. Bolivian and Austrian officials both say Snowden was not on board.
In Vienna, an official said that Morales’ aircraft asked controllers at Vienna airport to land because there was “no clear indication” that the plane had enough fuel to continue on its journey. The official, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to go public with the information, said Austrian authorities could not comment on whether the plane was denied overflights by other countries.
Despite the statements from France, Spain and Portugal, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, speaking in Geneva on Wednesday, continued to insist that several European countries had refused permission for the plane to fly in their airspace.
Bolivian officials had said that France, Portugal and Italy blocked the plane from flying over their territories based on unfounded rumors that 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.
Bolivia’s U.N. ambassador Sacha Llorenti said it was an “act of aggression” and that the four countries violated international law.
Llorenti 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.
There was no immediate U.S. response to Llorenti’s accusation.
In Washington, the State Department would not comment directly Tuesday night. Earlier Tuesday, department spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not discuss how the Obama administration might respond if Snowden left the Moscow airport. “We’re not there yet,” he said.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said “France ended up authorizing the flight over its airspace by Mr. Morales’ plane.”
She said the plane “was authorized to fly over French territory” but wouldn’t explain whether there had been an initial refusal Tuesday night amid the rumors about Snowden’s presence on the plane.
Spain’s foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the country on Tuesday authorized Morales’ plane to fly within its airspace and to make a refueling stop in the Canary Islands, and gave the authorization again on Wednesday morning after Bolivian authorities repeated the request.
A foreign ministry official declined comment when asked if Spain demanded the right to inspect the plane. The Spanish spoke on condition of anonymity because of ministry rules.
The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said in a written statement Wednesday that Portugal had granted permission for the plane to fly through its air space but declined Bolivia’s request for a refueling stop in Lisbon due to unspecified technical reasons.
Italian officials were not available to speak on the subject Wednesday morning.
“We don’t know who invented this lie” that Snowden was traveling with Morales, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said in La Paz. “We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales.”
In a midnight press conference in La Paz, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia described Morales as being “kidnapped by imperialism” in Europe.
Leaks by Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst, have revealed the NSA’s sweeping data collection of U.S. phone records and some Internet traffic, though U.S. intelligence officials have said the programs target foreigners and terrorist suspects mostly overseas.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia and 18 other countries, according to WikiLeaks, a secret spilling website that has been advising him. Many European countries on the list — including Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland — said he would have to make his request on their soil.
EU Transport spokeswoman Helen Kearns said it is up to national governments to allow or refuse planes entry into their airspace. She said it’s unclear what happened with the Bolivian plane and whether or not it was refused access and why.