Snowden drama ensnares an angry Bolivian leader

It began as a seemingly offhand remark by the president of Bolivia, who suggested during a visit to Moscow that he might be happy to host Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former security contractor who is desperate to find asylum. It escalated into a major diplomatic scramble in which the Bolivian president's plane was rerouted Tuesday because of suspicions that Snowden was aboard.

By day's end, outraged Bolivian officials, insisting that Snowden was not on the plane, were accusing France and Portugal of acting under US pressure to rescind permission for President Evo Morales' plane to traverse their airspace on the way back to Bolivia. Low on fuel, the plane's crew won permission to land in Vienna.

"They say it was due to technical issues, but after getting explanations from some authorities we found that there appeared to be some unfounded suspicions that Snowden was on the plane," the Bolivian foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told reporters after the touched down in Vienna, where Morales was spending the night.
"We don't know who invented this lie," the foreign minister said at a news conference in La Paz. "We want to express our displeasure because this has put the president's life at risk."

Ruben Saavedra, the defense minister, who was on the plane with Morales, accused the Obama administration of being behind the action by France and Portugal, calling it "an attitude of sabotage and a plot by the government of the United States." There was no immediate response by officials in Paris, Lisbon or Washington.

"We were in flight; it was completely unexpected," Saavedra said on the Telesur cable network. "The president was very angry."

Speaking by telephone with Telesur, Saavedra said that Snowden was not on the plane. But given the aura of mystery that has surrounded Snowden's odyssey to escape US prosecutors who are seeking his extradition for disclosing classified intelligence information, there was no independent way to know for sure.

Bolivian officials said they were working on a new flight plan to allow Morales to fly home. But in a possible sign of further suspicion about the passenger manifest, Saavedra said that Italy had also refused to give permission for the plane to fly over its airspace in response to a request for a new flight plan.

Hours earlier, Morales, who was attending an energy conference in Moscow, had been asked by reporters if he would consider giving asylum to Snowden, 30, who has been holed up at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for more than a week, his passport revoked by the United States, unable to go anywhere. Bolivia is one of at least 19 countries reported to have received an application from him.

"Why not?" Morales responded, according to Bolivian news media accounts. "His case has triggered international debate, and of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce things."

It was already clear by then that the Moscow conference had been overshadowed by the saga of Snowden and his revelations, which have deeply embarrassed the Obama administration, President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who was also at the conference, had suggested he might offer Snowden asylum but did not plan to fly him to Venezuela.

But Morales' remarks appeared to open the door. At least that was the way they were interpreted.

The problems began even before Morales left Moscow, Choquehuanca said. On Monday, Portugal, without explanation, had withdrawn permission for Morales' plane to stop in Lisbon to refuel, the foreign minister said. That forced Bolivian officials to get permission from Spain to refuel in the Canary Islands.

The next day, after taking off from Moscow, Morales' plane was just minutes from entering French airspace, according to Saavedra, when the French authorities informed the pilot that the plane could not fly over France.

There was also plenty of confusion in Moscow over how Snowden could possibly leave undetected on a government aircraft.
Government planes carrying foreign officials to diplomatic meetings in Moscow typically arrive and depart from Vnukovo Airport, which is also the main airfield used by the Russian government, rather than at Sheremetyevo, where Snowden arrived from Hong Kong on June 23 hours after US officials had sought his extradition there.

The speculation that Snowden would hitch a ride on a government jet was discounted by the fact that the plane would have to first make a quick flight from one Moscow airport to the other.

In an interview with the television station Russia Today, Maduro said that he would consider any request by Snowden. Then, ending the interview with a dash of humor, he said, "It's time for me to go; Snowden is waiting for me."