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Bolivian president's plane continues flight from Europe to South America


MOSCOW — Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, forced to land in Austria because of suspicions that U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden was on board, was permitted to fly home Wednesday, Bolivian and European authorities said.

The search for Snowden turned into a major diplomatic fiasco, with Bolivia, Venezuela and several other Latin American countries lashing out at the United States and accusing it of having strong-armed European countries into redirecting the official Bolivian presidential plane.

The U.S. government had no immediate comment.

Snowden, who revealed secret U.S. surveillance programs and fled to Hong Kong, then Moscow, to stay beyond the U.S. government’s reach, was not aboard the plane, an irate David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s foreign minister, told reporters after the Bolivian delegation landed in Vienna.

“We don’t know who invented this lie,” he said from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.

Morales’ plane, ferrying him home from a conference in Moscow, was redirected to Vienna late Tuesday after France and Portugal refused to allow it to enter their airspace, Bolivian and Venezuelan officials said.

Authorities in Austria confirmed that the plane was searched and that Snowden, 30, was not on the flight. There was no indication that he had left Moscow, where he has been in diplomatic limbo for more than a week.

“Our airport staff have checked it over and can assure you that no one is on board who is not a Bolivian citizen,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told reporters at the Vienna airport, Reuters news agency reported. He called it a “voluntary examination.” But Morales had told reporters that no Austrians had been on board.

Bolivia’s government responded angrily to the incident. Vice President Álvaro García announced that the ambassadors of France and Italy and the consul for Portugal would be summoned to the Foreign Ministry in La Paz on Wednesday to explain what he called “the abuse” of redirecting Morales’s plane.

He said the representatives of those countries need to explain “these disagreeable, terrible and abusive events.”

The incident also raised the ire of governments and organizations across Latin America, which cast Morales’s troubles as a dire violation against a small country orchestrated by Washington. Even Colombia’s leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), called the rerouting of the plane “an infamy.”

José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, which is based in Washington and is made up of governments across the Western Hemisphere, called for an explanation from the European countries that Morales’ government accused of blocking his plane’s flight path.

“Nothing justifies an action of such disrespect from the highest authorities of a country,” said Insulza, who is from Chile.

Choquehuanca said Morales’ 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” flight authorization.

The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that Portugal informed the Bolivians on Monday afternoon, a full day before Morales’s flight, that it would not allow the Bolivian plane to land in the country for unspecified “technical reasons” but that it would allow an overflight.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that two officials with the French Foreign Ministry said that Morales’ plane also had authorization to fly over France. They would not comment on why Bolivian officials said otherwise. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named, according to ministry policy.

The wire service, citing an unidentified official in Vienna, reported that the flight crew on Morales’ aircraft asked controllers at the Vienna airport for permission to land because the plane needed more fuel to continue its journey.

The aircraft took off from Vienna shortly before noon Wednesday, AP reported. Spain said the plane would be allowed to refuel in the Canary Islands, although a Foreign Ministry official declined to comment on a claim by Bolivia that the permission was contingent on allowing authorities to search the plane, the wire service said.

Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia. Washington Post staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2013, The Washington Post

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