South American leaders furious over Morales 'kidnap'

Thursday 04 July 2013 07.19
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Evo Morales speaks to reporters in the airport in Vienna
Evo Morales speaks to reporters in the airport in Vienna
Mr Morales waves as he boards his plane
Mr Morales waves as he boards his plane

Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived home to a hero's welcome late last night, after his plane was diverted and he was forced to land in Austria.

He said some European countries' refusal to let his plane enter their airspace because of suspicion it carried fugitive US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was a provocation aimed at all of South America.

Mr Morales was greeted by his cabinet and cheering, fist-pumping crowds at La Paz's airport after a dramatic journey from Moscow that ignited a diplomatic furore when his plane had to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna on Tuesday evening.

"This was an open provocation toward a continent, not just a president," said Mr Morales.

"North American imperialism uses its people to terrify and intimidate us. I just want to say they will never frighten us because we are a people of dignity and sovereignty."

Other Latin American leaders were also fuming over the plane incident, with heads of state in the 12-nation South American bloc Unasur denouncing the "unfriendly and unjustifiable acts".

The bloc said a group of leaders from member countries would hold an emergency summit in Bolivia today to discuss the matter.

Unasur includes close leftist allies of Bolivia such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina as well as more centrist governments like those in Chile and Brazil.

Earlier yesterday, Bolivia accused the US of trying to "kidnap" Mr Morales, after his plane was denied permission to fly over France and Portugal.

The Bolivian government said it had filed a formal complaint with the United Nations and was studying other legal avenues to prove its rights had been violated under international law.

Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti Soliz, said, "We have no doubt that it was an order from the White House. By no means should a diplomatic plane with the president be diverted from its route and forced to land in another country."

The White House declined to comment on the Bolivian allegations.

Mr Snowden was not on the plane when it landed in Vienna, an Austrian official said.

He is believed to be stranded in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport and the US has been trying to get its hands on him since he revealed details of its secret surveillance programs last month.

The furore was the latest twist in a saga that has raised debate over the balance between privacy rights and national security.

Accusations of US surveillance on European countries have also strained transatlantic relations.

France said yesterday that free-trade talks between the European Union and the US should be delayed by two weeks given tensions over media reports, stemming from the Snowden case, that the US is spying on the 28-nation bloc.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed yesterday to hold talks between their security officials in coming days on US surveillance activities and security issues.

The Bolivian plane was taking Mr Morales home from an energy conference in Moscow when it landed at Vienna airport.

Austrian Deputy Chancellor Michael Spindelegger said Mr Morales personally denied that Mr Snowden was aboard his jet and agreed to a voluntary inspection.

"Based on this invitation from Bolivia, a colleague boarded the plane, looked at everything and there was no one else on board," Mr Spindelegger told reporters.

But Bolivian Defence Minister Ruben Saavedra said Mr Morales' plane was not searched because Mr Morales had refused Austrian authorities entry.

Mr Morales' plane eventually left Vienna and landed in Spain's Canary Islands for refuelling before heading back to Bolivia.

The UN said in a statement that the secretary-general understood the Bolivian government's concerns and urged the countries concerned to discuss the matter.

The Obama administration has advised foreign governments that allowing Mr Snowden to land on their territory could seriously damage their relations with the US, US and European national security sources said.

The sources said the administration believed such lobbying played a role in persuading countries to which Mr Snowden had applied for asylum to reject or not respond to his bid.

The US believes its diplomacy also has caused countries whose leaders publicly expressed sympathy for Mr Snowden to have second thoughts about the matter in private, they said.

A spokesman at France's Foreign Ministry blamed the incident on "an administrative mishap," saying France never intended to ban Mr Morales from its airspace and that there were delays in getting confirmation that the plane had fly-over permits.

International agreements allow civilian airplanes to overfly countries without obtaining permission before every flight.

But state aircraft, including Air Force One, which carries the US president, must obtain clearance before they cross into foreign territory.

The treatment of the Bolivian military aircraft hit a nerve in Latin America, which has a history of US-backed coups.

In a statement from Peru's government, which holds the group's presidency, Unasur expressed outrage and indignation that the plane was not allowed to land in Portugal and France.

"Latin America demands an explanation," tweeted Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. "If what happened to Evo does not merit a Unasur summit, I don't know what does."

In the Bolivian capital, La Paz, the US Embassy said late yesterday its Independence Day party today had been put off "until further notice".

Bolivia is among more than a dozen countries where Mr Snowden has sought asylum and Morales has said he would consider granting the American refuge.

But he said earlier this week no request had been made.

Mr Snowden, 30, who worked for the National Security Agency as a contractor in Hawaii, has been trying since 23 June to find a country that will offer him refuge from prosecution in the US on espionage charges.

But his options have narrowed since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong with no valid travel documents after the United States revoked his passport.

Five countries have rejected granting Mr Snowden asylum, seven have said they would consider a request if made on their soil, and eight said they had either not made a decision or not received a request.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to send Mr Snowden to the United States, with which Russia has no extradition treaty.

But he is also reluctant to damage ties over a man for whom Mr Putin, a former KGB spy, has little sympathy.

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