Bolivia fury after president's jet diverted in Snowden row

3rd July 2013, Comments 0 comments

EU powers on Wednesday papered over a rift sparked by US spying claims from Edward Snowden, but there was fury in South America after the Bolivian president's jet was grounded in Europe on suspicion the fugitive intelligence leaker was aboard.

The note of Franco-German discord, and stone-throwing protests in La Paz, were the latest fallout from the claims of widespread US online snooping and bugging of EU facilities made by Snowden, who is holed up at a Moscow airport.

Suspicion that Snowden was aboard the jet of Bolivia's President Evo Morales sparked drama over European skies from late Tuesday that ended with its grounding in Vienna, which the left-leaning leader angrily likened to a "13-hour kidnapping".

Bolivian officials accused France, Portugal, Italy and Spain of denying overflight rights to the jet late Tuesday. La Paz has launched a complaint with the United Nations, while an angry rally flared outside the French embassy in the Andean nation.

France later expressed its regret, and President Francois Hollande, speaking in Berlin, blamed an initial mix-up. He said he granted permission for the flight as soon as he knew it was the Bolivian presidential jet -- although it had already been diverted at that stage.

"There was conflicting information about the passengers who were on board," Hollande said in brief comments. "When I knew it was the plane of the Bolivian president, I immediately gave permission for it to fly" over French territory.

At the same event in Berlin, an EU conference on tackling mass youth unemployment, the 28-nation bloc also presented a joint reaction to the claims of US mass surveillance that has worried and stunned governments on the continent.

The issue was whether landmark EU-US talks should start as scheduled in Washington on Monday, with the aim of forming the world's largest free trade area.

Shortly before the conference started, Paris had declared that the launch of trade talks should be delayed until an atmosphere of transatlantic trust was restored, while Germany insisted the talks should start on schedule.

It was left to EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to announce the joint position -- free trade talks that run parallel with US-EU working groups looking at the extent of the US spying and listening to emails, web searches and phone calls.

-- Latin America outrage --

Snowden, 30, has been stranded in the Russian capital since June 23, seeking to avoid US espionage charges.

He has applied for asylum in 21 countries, including Austria and Bolivia, and accused Washington of pressuring foreign leaders to deny him refuge.

Morales had earlier said his country would consider giving political asylum to Snowden, sparking the intervention when his flight from Moscow had to cross the continent.

Venting his anger in Vienna, Morales said: "I am not a delinquent."

Austria's interior ministry said that a "voluntary inspection" of the plane by Vienna airport police had showed Snowden was not on board. The jet was carrying just five crew and six passengers, it added.

Morales' jet eventually left Vienna around 0945 GMT Wednesday after Spain opened its airspace. The journey to Bolivia was expected to take around 15 hours. The jet made a refuelling stop in the Spanish Canary Islands, and another was expected in Brazil.

In La Paz, about 100 protesters threw stones and burned the French flag at Paris's embassy, with protesters chanting "Fascist France, get out of Bolivia!"

The presidential palace said protest rallies were also planned outside the embassies of the United States, Portugal and Italy.

Not only Bolivia but its regional allies Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, Cuba and Nicaragua reacted angrily to the jet incident.

Several leftist Latin American leaders are planning to meet in Bolivia on Thursday over the controversy, the government in La Paz said.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said, "this is an attack against President Morales's life."

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on Twitter: "We express our solidarity with Evo and the brave Bolivian people. Our America cannot tolerate so much abuse."

And Uruguay's foreign ministry condemned the "arbitrary and inexplicable" airspace bans.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner tweeted that the incident was "very humiliating."

Bolivia's UN envoy Sacha Llorenti told reporters in Geneva the diversion was an "act of aggression" against Bolivia and tantamount to "kidnapping" Morales.


© 2013 AFP

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