Bolivian President Evo Morales was on Wednesday finally on his way back home after a diplomatic flap set off by France, Italy and Portugal refusing to let his private jet overfly them as he headed home from Moscow and, upon landing in Vienna for refuelling, denying him permission to take off. The actions followed rumours that the whistle-blower Edward Snowden was on board.
Austrian authorities searched the aircraft as it stood on the tarmac for some 13 hours, and found them to be baseless. The President termed it “a 13-hour kidnap.”
Mr. Morales was returning after a meeting of producer-countries of natural gas.
France, Italy and Portugal evidently feared that Mr. Snowden would have boarded the presidential aircraft with a view to obtaining political asylum upon touching down on European soil. They did not wish to risk having Mr. Snowden on their hands, or face Washington’s ire. They, therefore, chose to deny permission to overfly.
It would have been difficult for a European Union country to refuse Mr. Snowden political asylum because the death penalty remains legal in the U.S. and it would virtually be obliged to grant asylum to a person who faced the death penalty back home.
The aircraft was rerouted and made an emergency refuelling stopover in Vienna. In an impromptu press conference in the airport, Mr. Morales said the decision by France, Italy and Portugal was “a historic error”, and the de facto detention of his aircraft was an act of “aggression towards not just Bolivia, but all of Latin America.”
Mr. Morales said he failed to understand how anyone could have thought Mr. Snowden would be in his aircraft. “This gentleman is not a suitcase or a fly that I could place on board my plane and take to Bolivia,” he said.
There was anger in Bolivia with many citizens claiming that the life of their President was put in danger. Bolivian authorities said rumours about Mr. Snowden being on board the aircraft were floated by U.S. agents in order to put pressure on Bolivia.
Bolivian Defence Minister Reubens Saavedra said: “These European countries were manipulated by a foreign power, namely the USA.”
Dozens of people demonstrated outside the French Embassy in La Paz, the Bolivian capital. There was no immediate comment from French authorities on the matter.