MOSCOW – Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, ferrying him home from Moscow, was redirected to Vienna late Tuesday after France, Italy, Spain and Portugal refused to allow it to enter their airspace because of the belief that the American fugitive Edward Snowden was aboard, Bolivian authorities said.
Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed top-secret U.S. surveillance programs and fled to Moscow to stay beyond American reach, was not aboard the plane, an irate Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told reporters in Vienna, where the Bolivian delegation had landed. “We don’t know who invented this lie,” he said.
Choquehuanca said the plane was an hour from French airspace when it was told it could not enter. “Portugal has to explain to us,” he said. “France has to explain to us why they canceled” the flight authorization.
French and Spanish officials denied Wednesday that they refused to let the Bolivian president’s plane cross over their airspace. Officials in Portugal and Italy were not available to speak on the subject Wednesday morning.
The allegation that the plane had been redirected for reasons related to Snowden could not be verified. But the latest twist seemed to signal that U.S. authorities have been able to marshal support from European countries in what has been a feverish pursuit of Snowden.
But the diverting of Morales’ plane is sure to fan anger against the United States, which is trying to play down new revelations of spying against European allies while trying to win support to corral Snowden even from countries such as Russia, Bolivia and Venezuela, which are sharply at odds with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the incident over Austria “an attempt on Evo Morales’ life.” He said it was a sign of how far “the empire” — a reference to the U.S. — and it’s “lackeys” would go “to hunt down a young man who has only said the truth.”
For Washington, Bolivia clearly emerged as a possible sanctuary for Snowden, who was stuck in Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport before his arrival there on a June 23 flight from Hong Kong.
In an interview earlier Tuesday in Moscow on the state-financed RT news channel, Morales said he would consider asylum for Snowden. “Yes, why not?” he said. “Bolivia is there to welcome personalities who denounce — I don’t know if it’s espionage or control. But we are here.”
After living unseen in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for a week, Snowden sent out a flurry of 19 asylum requests Sunday night, according to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has been advising him. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he could stay there if he stopped leaking information harmful to the U.S., an odd offer that Snowden refused, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday morning.
That left a list of countries, in alphabetical order from Austria to Venezuela, to which Snowden had sent appeals. By Tuesday evening, nearly half of them — including Ecuador and Iceland — had said an applicant must be in the country to be considered. Four had said no, and others had not replied.
Some countries avoided him out of friendship with the U.S., others for political or economic reasons. Ecuador, which at first had appeared enthusiastic, grew less so after Vice President Joe Biden made a friendly call to the president. To be granted asylum, Snowden would have to count on a country to defy Washington. Of those on his list, Bolivia and Venezuela were looking like the best possibilities.
The Obama administration on Tuesday acknowledged contacting foreign governments on Snowden’s asylum list, but the State Department dismissed the leaker’s claims that Washington has mounted a campaign to pressure anyone against offering Snowden sanctuary.
Late Tuesday, Maduro was preparing to fly on to Belarus — without Snowden, a member of his entourage told the Interfax news agency.
After his nine days in limbo, Snowden’s situation looked desperate. Officials there have portrayed themselves as powerless in the case because Snowden is outside their jurisdiction in the transit zone and needs a passport or other document before he can travel onward, but some Russians find that disingenuous. Russian officials always find a way to do exactly what they want, they say.
And that has raised questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Pavel Felgenhauer, a longtime military analyst and observer of the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service, offered this speculative scenario: Russia must be trying to see if it can recruit Snowden.
In an interview Tuesday, Felgenhauer said that when Putin told reporters that Snowden could stay if he stopped talking about the U.S., he was saying he had to make a choice. Putin was telling Snowden that he would be working for Russia, not for one of the newspapers publishing his leaks, Felgenhauer said.
The reason Snowden has not been seen is that border guards, who are standing at the door when an international flight lands and who work for the FSB, would have hustled him off to a safe room in the airport, or even a safe house elsewhere, Felgenhauer said.
“He’s cornered psychologically,” Felgenhauer said. “You bring the guy to the breaking point to see if he’s real. By now he’s probably afraid of everything, convinced he’ll be hunted down like bin Laden if he leaves here.”