South American leftist leaders rally to Bolivia's side in Snowden saga

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia Thu Jul 4, 2013 6:58pm EDT

1 of 2. Bolivia's President Evo Morales (R) and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera sing the national anthem after Morales' arrival at the El Alto airport on the outskirts of La Paz, July 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/David Mercado

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COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Reuters) - South America's most outspoken leftist leaders gathered on Thursday to rally behind Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose plane was diverted in Europe this week on suspicions that fugitive U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was aboard.

The summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia - where Morales began his political career as a leader of coca leaf farmers - is aimed at expressing outrage over his "virtual kidnapping" and the U.S. pressure they believe spurred it.

"Europe broke all the rules of the game," Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said shortly after arriving at the Cochabamba airport. "We're here to tell President Evo Morales that he can count on us. Whoever picks a fight with Bolivia, picks a fight with Venezuela."

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said earlier that if any country had denied airspace to a U.S. or European president, it "probably would've been grounds for war."

Despite the rhetoric, no Latin American country has offered asylum yet to Snowden, who is wanted by Washington for disclosure of intelligence secrets. Two radical leftist governments - Venezuela and Cuba - are in a cautious rapprochement with the United States that would be jeopardized if they gave him sanctuary.

Russia is growing impatient over Snowden's stay in a Moscow airport and officials have urged him to leave.

Bolivia said Morales was returning from Moscow on Tuesday when France and Portugal abruptly banned his plane from entering their airspace, and it was forced to land in Vienna. Austrian officials said they inspected his plane there, but Bolivia's defense minister denied this.

This unusual treatment of a presidential plane upset leaders in Latin America, which has a history of U.S.-backed coups.

Still, only the presidents of Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Suriname agreed to join Morales at the meeting late on Thursday, reflecting a split in the region.

Noticeably absent was the president of regional heavyweight Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who sent her international affairs adviser and a deputy foreign minister to the meeting.

The presidents and foreign ministers of Chile, Peru and Colombia, which have good relations with the United States, also stayed away. In a written statement, Colombia's foreign ministry called on Bolivia and the European governments involved to find a diplomatic solution.

But Morales has said apologies like the one he received from France on Wednesday were not enough, and his foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, called for those responsible for the flight mishap to be punished under international law.

"At the end of the meeting there has to be a declaration that indicates what actions we have to take, because this is not just about Bolivia, it's about South America," Choquehuanca told local radio.

Bolivia and Venezuela were also irked at receiving provisional arrest requests for Snowden from Washington, a move Bolivia called "illegal and unfounded".

U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, said: "We've broadly asked for Mr. Snowden to be returned from any country where he may be, where he may land, where he may transit."

To allay the anger of allies over reported U.S. spying that came to light in the Snowden scandal, U.S. President Barack Obama has agreed to talks with the European Union, and also agreed to bilateral talks with Germany after speaking on Wednesday night with Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I made clear spying on institutions within the European Union is not how we would expect those we consider friends to treat us," Merkel said.

HERO'S WELCOME

Morales arrived home to a hero's welcome late on Wednesday with cheering, fist-pumping crowds greeting him at the airport.

Bolivia is among more than a dozen countries where Snowden has sought asylum, and Morales has said he would consider granting the American refuge. But he said earlier this week no request had been made.

The 30-year-old Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency in Hawaii, has been trying since June 23 to find a country that will offer him refuge from prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.

But his options have narrowed since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong with no valid travel documents after the United States revoked his passport.

Moscow has made it clear Snowden is an increasingly unwelcome guest because the longer he stays, the greater the risk that the diplomatic standoff with Washington could cause lasting damage.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos in La Paz, Eyanir Chinea and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Alexandra Ulmer in Santiago, Helen Murphy in Bogota, Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Marco Aquino in Peru, Louise Egan and Guido Nejamkis in Buenos Aires; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Terry Wade, Louise Egan, Jackie Frank and Paul Simao)

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