The airplane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales from a Moscow energy conference resumed its journey after an unplanned stop in Vienna prompted by suspicion that fugitive U.S. leaker Edward Snowden was aboard.
France, Italy, Portugal and Spain originally caused the Bolivian delegation’s 14-hour delay in the Austrian capital after refusing overflight rights, Morales said, prompting calls for an emergency meeting of South American leaders. Spanish insistence on searching the plane during a planned refueling stop in the Canary Islands prolonged the standoff.
“This is a provocation to Bolivia and to all Latin Americans,” Morales told reporters in Vienna before departing. “I have the duty to protect the rights of my position. I am the president of a people.”
Morales had his trip disrupted amid increasing U.S. pressure for Snowden’s extradition. The former National Security Agency contractor remained in limbo at an airport in Moscow after withdrawing a request for asylum in Russia. He has sought asylum instead in 20 other countries, including Bolivia and Austria, according to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Snowden revealed himself last month as the source of leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data. U.S. prosecutors are seeking his return and have filed theft and espionage charges against the former employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.
Morales’s airplane will refuel without being searched on Spain’s Canary Islands to finish the 7,700 kilometer (4,785 mile) flight to La Paz, said Ricardo Martinez, a Bolivian diplomat stationed in Austria.
“Spain has authorized the Bolivian president’s plane to make a stopover,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said today at a press conference broadcast from Berlin. “The important thing is that Snowden isn’t on that plane.”
Ambassadors and consuls from Spain, France, Portugal and Italy have been called to explain the incident to Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera told reporters in La Paz today. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the flight disruption a “humiliation” for South America.
Morales is expected to arrive in La Paz between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. local time after a stop in Fortaleza, Brazil, Garcia Linera said, according to state news agency ABI.
Austrian officials checked the airplane and found “there was no stowaway on board,” Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told journalists at the airport. Morales said he was unaware of any search conducted by Austrian officials.
“According to international norms the space inside a presidential airplane is inviolable,” Morales told reporters, citing the Vienna Convention. The 1961 treaty, signed by over 180 countries and which forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity, says “the means of transport shall be immune from search.”
“This all comes from a rumor that was begun by the U.S. State Department,” said Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra Soto in Vienna, who was one of five others with Morales on the plane. “It’s a rumor completely based on a lie. At no point was Mr. Snowden aboard the President of Bolivia’s airplane.”
Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Norway and Ireland all said yesterday that any asylum requests by Snowden can only be considered when made inside their territory or at the border. Poland turned down his asylum bid, saying it didn’t meet the requirements for political refuge, and India said it saw “no reason” to shelter him. Italy is “evaluating the situation” and will make a decision “very soon,” Ansa reported. Germany rejected an asylum bid yesterday saying Snowden doesn’t fulfill the conditions.
Snowden, whose U.S. passport was revoked, can’t leave the Moscow airport transit zone without a new travel document. He dropped his request for asylum in Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin said July 1 that the American must stop hurting U.S. interests if he wants to remain there.
U.S. officials have been contacting countries Snowden might approach for asylum or pass through on the way to a third country to provide “reasons why Mr. Snowden should be returned to the United States and face charges,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday in Washington.
Morales told Russia’s RT Television network yesterday before his unscheduled stop in Vienna that Bolivia was ready to consider Snowden’s request for refuge. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his country is still weighing asylum for Snowden although it’s not helping him leave Moscow.
A U.S. defense official said last night the Pentagon didn’t ask North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to deny overflight rights to the plane carrying Morales. The official asked not to be identified in discussing the matter citing diplomatic sensitivities.
“President Evo Morales was held hostage by imperialism,” Bolivian Vice-President Garcia Linera said in a statement on the government website. Bolivia called for an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations to confront the “rotten colonialism” that delayed Morales.
Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry said the 12-nation bloc will convene a meeting over the incident, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry said in a Twitter statement today without elaborating when the meeting would be held.