La Paz - Bolivian President Evo Morales said Thursday that the rerouting of his plane over suspicions that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was on board was a plot by the U.S. to intimidate him and other Latin American leaders.
Morales, long a fierce critic of U.S. policy toward Latin America, received a hero’s welcome from a cheering crowd in La Paz airport late Wednesday night.
His return followed a dramatic, unplanned 14-hour layover in Vienna that ignited an international diplomatic row. Bolivia’s government said France, Spain and Portugal refused to let the president’s plane through their airspace, forcing it to land in Austria. He was flying home from a summit in Russia.
Latin American leaders were outraged by the incident, calling it a violation of national sovereignty and a slap in the face for a region that has suffered through humiliations by Europe and several U.S.-backed military coups. Several South American presidents were headed to the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on Thursday to show their support for the leftist leader.
Morales said the incident involving his plane was a provocation to the region, and he urged European nations to “free themselves” from the U.S. “The United States is using its agent (Snowden) and the president (of Bolivia) to intimidate the whole region,” he said.
Bolivian government officials have repeatedly said they believe that Washington was behind the incident.
France sent an apology to the Bolivian government. But Morales said “apologies are not enough because the stance is that international treaties must be respected.”
Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said his country did not forbid Morale’s president from landing in its territory.
Amid the tensions, the U.S. embassy in La Paz cancelled Independence Day celebrations scheduled for Thursday. In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, Bolivian government sympathizers painted protest slogans on the doors of the American consulate.
Morales said he never saw Snowden when he was in Russia, and that Bolivia had not received a formal request for asylum for him. While still in Russia he had suggested that he was willing to consider giving Snowden asylum in Bolivia.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino has said that the presidents of Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Suriname and possibly Uruguay will attend the summit in Cochabamba to discuss the matter. Bolivia said earlier it also would summon the French and Italian ambassadors and the Portuguese consul to demand explanations.
Despite the complaints, there were no signs that Latin America leaders were moving to bring Snowden to the region that had been seen as the most likely to grant him asylum.
Presidents from Colombia, Chile and Peru, who have strong ties to the U.S., will be absent from the summit.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he supports Morales, but asked other leaders to remain cool and avoid an escalating dispute between Latin America and the European Union.
“We’re in solidarity with Evo Morales because what they did to him is unheard-of, but let’s not let this turn into a diplomatic crisis for Latin America and the EU,” Santos wrote Thursday on Twitter.
It’s still unclear whether European countries did block the plane and, if so, why. French, Spanish and Portuguese officials have all said the plane was allowed to cross their territory.
The emergency stop in Austria may have been caused by a row over where the plane could refuel and whether European authorities could inspect it for signs of Snowden.
The U.S. has declined to comment on whether it was involved in any decision to close European airspace, saying only that “US officials have been in touch with a broad range of countries over the course of the last 10 days,” about the Snowden case.
“The message has been communicated both publicly and privately,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “He should be returned to the United States.”
Snowden remains out of public view, believed to be stuck in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries.
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