MOSCOW — Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, ferrying him home from Moscow, was redirected to Vienna late Tuesday after France and Portugal refused to allow it to enter their airspace because of the belief that the American fugitive Edward Snowden was aboard, said Bolivian and Venezuelan authorities.
Snowden, who revealed secret U.S. surveillance programs and fled to Moscow to stay beyond American reach, was not aboard the plane, an irate David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s foreign minister, told reporters after the Bolivian delegation landed in Vienna. “We don’t know who invented this lie,” he said from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.
Authorities in Austria confirmed that the plane was searched and Snowden, the 30-year-old former government contractor, was not on the flight, the Associated Press reported. There was no indication that he had left Moscow, where he has been in diplomatic limbo for more than a week.
Choquehuanca said that Morales’s plane was an hour from French airspace when it was told it could not enter. “Portugal has to explain to us,” he said. “France has to explain to us why they canceled” flight authorization.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that two officials with the French Foreign Ministry said that Morales’s plane had authorization to fly over France. They would not comment on why Bolivian officials said otherwise. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named, according to ministry policy.
The wire service, citing an unnamed official in Vienna, reported that Morales’s aircraft asked controllers at the Vienna airport for permission to land because it needed more fuel to continue on its journey.
The aircraft took off from Vienna shortly before noon Wednesday, AP reported. Spain said the plane would be allowed to refuel in the Canary Islands, although a foreign ministry official declined to comment on a claim by Bolivia that the permission was contingent on allowing authorities to search the plane, the wire service said.
The White House, CIA and State Department all declined to comment on the situation involving the Bolivian aircraft. But the latest twist seemed to signal that U.S. authorities have been able to marshal support from European countries in what has been a feverish pursuit of the former National Security Agency contractor. It also underscored how Snowden has settled still deeper into isolation as one country after another has rejected his appeals for asylum since his disclosure of a trove of highly secret documents.
But the diverting of Morales’s plane is sure to fan anger against the United States, which is trying to play down new revelations of spying against European allies while trying to win support to corral Snowden even from countries such as Russia, Bolivia and Venezuela, which are sharply at odds with the Obama administration.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the incident over Austria “an attempt on Evo Morales’s life.” He said it was a sign of how far “the empire” — a reference to the United States — and its “lackeys” would go “to hunt down a young man who has only said the truth.”
Bolivia’s defense minister, Ruben Saavedra, who was on the flight, also blamed the United States, telling Bolivian media that “this proves with clarity an attitude of sabotage and plotting by the United States, pressuring European government.” He said that Italy, too, had barred Morales’s plane from its airspace.
For the United States, Bolivia clearly emerged as a possible sanctuary for Snowden, who was stuck in Russia after the United States revoked his passport before his arrival here on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23.
In an interview earlier Tuesday in Moscow on the state-financed RT news channel, Morales said he would consider asylum for Snowden. “Yes, why not?” he said. “Bolivia is there to welcome personalities who denounce — I don’t know if it’s espionage or control. But we are here.”
After living unseen in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for a week, Snowden sent out 19 asylum requests Sunday night, according to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has been advising him. On Monday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he could stay here if he stopped leaking information harmful to the United States, an odd offer that Snowden refused, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday morning.
That left a list of countries, from Austria to Venezuela, to which Snowden had sent appeals. By Tuesday evening, at least eight of them — including Ecuador and Iceland, which had been asked earlier — had said an applicant must be in the country to be considered. At least three had said no, and others had not replied.
Some countries avoided him out of friendship with the United States, others for political or economic reasons. Ecuador, which at first had appeared enthusiastic, grew less so after Vice President Biden made a call to the president. To be granted asylum, Snowden would have to count on a country to defy the United States. Of those on his list, Bolivia and Venezuela were looking like the best possibilities. Both are hostile to the United States, and the presidents of both countries have heaped praise on Snowden.
Morales, who said his government had not received a formal request for asylum, in 2008 expelled the U.S. ambassador from his country and ended anti-drug cooperation with Washington.
“Bolivia, as well as Venezuela and Ecuador,” he said, “are exposed to constant surveillance from the U.S. empire.”
Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, was also in Moscow, which had convened a meeting of gas-exporting countries, and Russian media speculated that he would take Snowden to Venezuela on his official plane.
Maduro smiled at that suggestion. “We will take with us numerous agreements on investments in the oil and gas sector,” he said. He defended the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor, however, saying that he had neither killed anyone nor planted a bomb and that he deserved protection. “He only told the world a large truth to prevent war,” Maduro said. “The U.S. capitalist elite are trying to control the world and are spying on friends, foes and the entire planet.”
The Obama administration on Tuesday acknowledged contacting foreign governments on Snowden’s asylum list, but a State Department spokeswoman dismissed the leaker’s claims that Washington has mounted a campaign to pressure anyone against offering him sanctuary.
“We have been in touch, as we have been for several days now, with a broad range of countries that could serve as either transit spots or final destinations,” said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki. “And what we’ve been communicating is, of course, what we’ve been communicating publicly — that Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information. He is somebody that we would like to see returned to the United States.”
Late Tuesday, Maduro was preparing to fly on to Belarus — without Snowden, a member of his entourage told the Interfax news agency. Nothing could be done, the official told Interfax — the Venezuelan plane was at a different airport.
After his nine days in limbo, Snowden’s situation looked desperate. Officials here have portrayed themselves as powerless in the case because Snowden is outside their jurisdiction in the transit zone and needs a passport or other document before he can travel onward, but some Russians find that disingenuous. Russian officials always find a way to do exactly what they want, they say.
And that has raised questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Pavel Felgenhauer, a longtime military analyst and observer of the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, offered this speculative scenario: Russia must be trying to see whether it can recruit Snowden.
In an interview Tuesday, Felgenhauer said that when Putin told reporters that Snowden could stay if he stopped talking about the United States, Putin was saying that Snowden had to make a choice. Putin was telling Snowden that he would be working for Russia, not for one of the newspapers publishing his leaks, Felgenhauer said.
The reason Snowden has not been seen is that border guards, who stand at the door when an international flight lands and who work for the FSB, would have hustled him off to a safe room in the airport, or even a safe house elsewhere, Felgenhauer said. Snowden probably did not use a ticket he had to Havana on June 24, the analyst said, because his minders told him the United States would force the Aeroflot flight down when it flew over U.S. territory.
“He’s cornered psychologically,” Felgenhauer said. “You bring the guy to the breaking point to see if he’s real. By now he’s probably afraid of everything, convinced he’ll be hunted down like bin Laden if he leaves here.”
As Felgenhauer put it in a Novaya Gazeta article this week, “Snowden remained in Sheremetyevo like a suitcase with a broken-off handle: a pain to carry and a shame to throw away.”
Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia. Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.