Evo Morales’s controversial flight over Europe, minute by heavily disputed minute

July 3, 2013

(Screenshot of FlightRadar24.com)

The story of Bolivian Air Force flight FAB-001 is, to put it mildly, in dispute.

What we do know is that the plane took off from Moscow late on Tuesday, carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had expressed his support for NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Then, as the plane flew over central Austria, it took a sudden and unexpected 180-degree turn, landing in nearby Vienna. After some time, it left Vienna to resume its journey home to Bolivia. It flew over Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, stopping over in the Canary Islands, where it refueled around noon EST on Wednesday.

What we don't know, and what has rapidly become a source of tremendous international controversy, is the answer to why flight FAB-001 took that u-turn. There a few competing narratives as to what happened and why. While we don't know how to reconcile them, if that's even possible, the competing narratives are revealing both for how they conflict and the big blank spots they appear to leave out.

Bolivian narrative: 'North American imperialism'

Bolivian officials have issued a flurry of statements, at first stating that France and Portugal had denied the flight permission to enter their air space, then later implying that Spain and Italy had done so as well. The officials charged two things: that European countries had done this because they believed Morales had secretly taken Snowden on board his plane and because they had been pressured by the United States.

Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, who pledged to file a complaint accusing foreign governments of "kidnapping" Morales, issued a statement saying, "We will demand appropriate explanations from those countries that submitted to North American imperialism and briefly put President Morales in such a helpless situation." Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra, also on the flight, told Bolivian media, "This proves with clarity an attitude of sabotage and plotting by the United States, pressuring European governments."

Bolivian statements all seem to agree that the plane was searched by Austrian officials while in Vienna. But some – though not all – have hinted that they may not have agreed to the search. The country's UN ambassador called the search illegal and an act of aggression, but this line has not been repeated as widely as other complaints. A photo from inside the plane during the stop-over shows Morales smiling next to his Austrian counterpart, President Heinz Fischer.

From there, Bolivians say, Spain said it would allow the flight to refuel in the Canary Islands. But they said that Spanish officials granted the permission on condition that they be allowed to search the plane.

Austrian narrative: They landed for fuel, we searched with permission

According to Austrian statements, flight FAB-001 requested permission to land in Vienna because the pilots believed they might not have had sufficient fuel. Austrians say they searched the plane with Morales' permission and checked the passports of all passengers, but called this "routine."

French narrative: They had permission, but maybe not at first

The European countries accused by Morales of diverting his flight and doing the United States' bidding have not been particularly talkative. France has issued the most information but it has also been difficult to parse.

French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said, "France ended up authorizing the flight over its airspace by Mr. Morales' plane." But, according to the Associated Press, she would not say whether France had initially refused.

"There was contradictory information about the identity of the passengers aboard one or two aircraft, because there was also a doubt about the number of planes that wanted to fly over France," French President Francois Hollande said in Germany, apparently allowing the possibility that the flight had been denied permission. "As soon as I knew that it was the plane of Bolivia's president, I immediately gave my authorization for the overflight."

Spanish narrative: We didn't demand search

The Spanish foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the flight had permission to enter its air space, apparently contradicting Bolivian claims that they did not.

On Wednesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo denied Bolivian charges that his country had demanded an inspection or made its permission contingent on this.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in Berlin that, while FAB-001 had permission to refuel in the Canary Islands, it was important Snowden was not aboard.

Portugese narrative: Fly through but don't refuel

Portugal's foreign ministry said that it had granted permission for the plane to enter its airspace, contrary to Bolivian claims. But it said it had declined Bolivia's request for a refuelling stop in Lisbon, which it said was due to technical reasons.

Italian and American narratives: silence

No public comment yet from either. We'll update if this changes.

The flight crew's narrative: We were low on fuel

Audio purportedly taken from FAB-001's calls to Vienna air traffic control (more on the source and verifiability of the audio here) seem to have the flight crew requesting permission to land either because they were low on fuel or due to an indicator problem. "We need to land because we cannot get a correct indication of the fuel indication – we need to land," the pilot or co-pilot says in the audio.

Austrian statements also indicated that the flight had requested to land because it was unsure if it had enough fuel.

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Max Fisher | July 3, 2013