3 Jul 2013

Morales plane ‘was not searched’ for Edward Snowden

A diplomatic row is brewing after Bolivian President Evo Morales’s jet is grounded in Vienna to be searched, presumably for Edward Snowden. But Bolivia says officials were refused entry to the plane.

Bolivia accused Austria of “kidnapping” its president after his plane was rerouted and grounded in Vienna, reportedly because of suspicions that US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden could be on board.

Bolivia’s foreign minister said that the presidential plane was denied airspace permits by France, Portugal, Italy and Spain on its way back from an energy conference in Moscow.

It was originally thought that President Morales’ plane was searched in Vienna. But the country’s defence minister later said that this was not the case. Ruben Saavedra said no one boarded the presidential aircraft because President Morales refused them entry. Bolivia’s vice president did say that officials had made their way up to the door of the aircraft.

The Bolivian party was reportedly stranded at the city’s airport for 12 hours before leaving at around 11.30am on Wednesday morning after the countries opened up their airspace.

Bolivia accused Austria of an act of aggression and a violation of international law, and the country’s UN Ambassador in New York, Sacha Llorenti Soliz, told reporters in Geneva he had no doubt that the orders to divert Morales’s plane came from the United States.

Our colleagues from the airport had a look and can give assurances that no one is on board who is not a Bolivian citizen. Austria’s deputy chancellor

“We’re talking about the president on an official trip after an official summit being kidnapped,” said Mr Llorenti Soliz.

The United States has not commented on the allegations.

Meanwhile Ecuador’s UK ambassador said that a microphone was found two weeks ago in its London embassy, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up for over a year. The country is still considering Mr Snowden’s application for asylum.

The diversion of the Bolivian plane has sparked fury in South America, and a crisis meeting of the continent’s leaders has been called for Thursday.

However in a further twist in the saga, French officials said on Wednesday that permission to enter the country’s airspace was never denied, while Spain said it had granted authorisation on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday when it was asked.

Snowden stranded

30-year-old Edward Snowden is in a desperate bid to escape the clutches of the United States after leaking details of a secret US government surveillance programme, Prism.

He has asked for asylum in 21 countries as of Tuesday, including Bolivia and Venezuela, but is currently waiting in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been for ten days.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca blamed the forced stopover in Vienna on “unfounded suspicions that Mr Snowden was on the plane”.

“We don’t know who invented this lie,” he said in La Paz. “We want to express our displeasure because this has put the president’s life at risk.”

We’re talking about the president on an official trip after an official summit being kidnappedBolivian UN Ambassador Sacha Llorenti Soliz

Earlier on Austria’s deputy chancellor, Michael Spindelegger, said that a search had been permitted by President Morales and that Mr Snowden was not stowed away.

“Our colleagues from the airport had a look and can give assurances that no one is on board who is not a Bolivian citizen,” Mr Spindelegger told reporters at the airport.

“Morales agreed to a voluntary inspection,” he added.

Revelations of US surveillance on EU countries had caused huge outcry just days earlier. Secret documents seen by German magazine Der Spiegel are reported to outline how the NSA bugged EU offices and spied on their internal computer networks in the US.

Public interest defence

Meanwhile an editorial in the Guardian, the main source of Mr Snowden’s links, suggested on Wednesday that the 30-year-old leave his hiding place in Russia “as soon as he practically can” and that the US treat him as a whistleblower, not a spy.

“To charge Mr Snowden under America’s first world war Espionage Act is inappropriate. We live in a different world from that. America is not at war in the traditional sense,” the editorial read.

It continued: “Any charges against him should be ones to which it is possible to mount a public interest defence.”