Bolivia says Morales' plane diverted, apparently over Snowden

LA PAZ Tue Jul 2, 2013 9:17pm EDT

1 of 2. Bolivia's President Evo Morales looks on before attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

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LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia said President Evo Morales' plane was forced to land in Austria on Tuesday after France and Portugal refused air permits, apparently because they suspected it was carrying Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy agency contractor wanted by Washington on espionage charges.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca furiously accused France and Portugal of putting the leftist Morales' life at risk and insisted that Snowden was not on Morales' plane.

Choquehuanca told reporters that Portugal and France had abruptly canceled the air permits, forcing the unscheduled Vienna stopover as Morales was returning on a Bolivian government plane from Russia.

"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 Mr. Snowden was on the plane ... We don't know who invented this lie," he said.

"We want to express our displeasure because this has put the president's life at risk."

While attending an energy conference in Russia this week, the socialist Morales said he would consider granting asylum to Snowden if requested.

"It is possible that they want to intimidate us due to the statement made by President Morales that we would analyze an asylum request from Mr. Snowden," said Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra.

"We have the suspicion that they (France and Portugal) were used by a foreign power, in this case the United States, as a way of intimidating the Bolivian state and President Evo Morales."

He said Italy had also denied permission for Morales' plane to enter its air space.

Snowden remains in limbo in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and has no valid travel documents.

Bolivia's relations with the United States have deteriorated since Morales became president in 2006. He expelled the U.S. ambassador and U.S. drug agency officials from the coca-growing Andean country in 2008 and has accused Washington of trying to destabilize his government.

In an effort to ease tension, the two countries signed an agreement in 2011 that promised to restore their respective diplomats.

The United States is one of Bolivia's top trade partners and aid donors, but the relationship remains tense and there is still no U.S. ambassador in Bolivia.

In May of this year, Morales expelled a U.S. development agency from Bolivia in protest after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America as Washington's "backyard."

(Additional reporting by Ivan Castro in Nicaragua; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Louise Egan; Editing by Kieran Murray and Christopher Wilson)

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