Bolivian president's flight rerouted on suspicion Snowden on board: plane lands in Austria

  • Article by: CARLOS VALDEZ , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 2, 2013 - 11:30 PM

VIENNA — The plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was rerouted to Austria after various European countries refused to let it cross their airspace because of suspicions that NSA leaker Edward Snowden was on board, Bolivian officials said Tuesday.

Officials in both Austria and Bolivia said that Snowden was not on the plane, which was taking Morales home from a summit in Russia, where he had suggested that his government would be willing to consider granting asylum to the American.

A furious Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said France and Portugal would have to explain why they canceled authorization for the plane, claiming that the decision had put the president's life at risk.

"We don't know who invented this lie" that Snowden was traveling with Morales, 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, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia said that not only France and Portugal, but also Italy and Spain were denying the plane permission to fly through their airspace.

He described Morales as being "kidnapped by imperialism" in Europe.

"The ambassador for Spain in Austria has just informed us that there is no authorization to fly over Spanish territory and that at 9 a.m. Wednesday they would be in contact with us again," said Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra, adding that the Spanish government had put as a condition for passage the "revision of the presidential plane."

Earlier, Choquehuanca said that Spain's government allowed Morales' plane to refuel in its territory before flying on to Vienna.

French government officials reached overnight said they could not confirm whether Morales' plane was denied permission to fly over France. Officials at Portugal's Foreign Ministry and National Civil Aviation Authority could not be reached to comment.

Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg told The Associated Press that Snowden was not with Morales.

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 are aimed at targeting foreigners and terrorist suspects mostly overseas.

He is believed to be in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries.

While Bolivia's foreign minister had earlier said officials did not know who was behind the "lie" that Snowden was on Morales' plane, the country's defense minister later expressed no doubt.

"We want to declare very firmly that it was an American story that Edward Snowden was on this flight," said Saavedra at the VIP terminal of Vienna's airport. "This is a plot by the U.S. government to destroy president Morales' image. We say this simply is a lie. And we will confirm this."

Morales himself was present during the improvised press conference but chose not to speak to reporters. Morales will remain at the airport until his plane has been cleared for takeoff.

In Washington, the State Department would not comment directly when asked to speak to the matter and referred the AP to statements on Snowden made at the department's daily briefing. 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.

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.

One of Snowden's best chances of finding refuge outside the United States may hinge on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was also in Russia on Tuesday.

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