The Bolivian presidential jet was forced to land in Austria Tuesday after rumors surfaced that the fugitive Edward Snowden was a stowaway on the aircraft. The plane was grounded and an outraged Bolivian president Evo Morales was stuck at the Vienna airport for more than 10 hours.
Austrian officials checked passports of the passengers on the plane. Karl-Heinz Grunbock , a spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry, told reporters that officials were confident that the U.S. intelligence leaker Snowden was not a stowaway on the plane. But he added that passport officials were not allowed to board the plane itself to inspect it.
He said the Austrian government was accepting Morales’ word, adding “there is no reason to doubt that.”
This international spectacle unfolded when Portuguese authorities refused to let Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane land in Lisbon for refueling while on his way back from Russia. According to Ruben Saavedra, Bolivian defense minister, Morales was flying back to home from Moscow, where he had been holding talks with gas-exporting nations.
Subsequently, France, Italy, and Portugal also refused to allow Morales’ plane in their airspace, the Bolivian mission in Vienna said.
“We are told that there were some unfounded suspicions that Snowden was on the plane,” David Choquehuanca, Bolivian Foreign Minister said. “We do not know who has invented this lie. Someone who wants to harm our country. This information that has been circulated is malicious information to harm this country.”
Several Latin American leaders were also outraged with this incident. Alvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivian vic- president said Morales was a “hostage of imperialism.”
“The president has been kidnapped by imperialism, and he is being held in Europe,” he said in a televised address late Tuesday night. He called for workers worldwide to protest “this act of imperial arrogance.”
Linera said that after the plane’s landing in Austria, some European officials said they would allow the plane to fly over their airspace on condition that investigators be allowed to search the aircraft, a condition which the vice president called unacceptable.
“We are not going to accept blackmail or any type of conditions,” he said.
Bolivian officials emphasized that charges that an official aircraft would harbor Snowden and allow him to be a stowaway on their presidential jet were baseless.
“We cannot lie to the international community by carrying ghost passengers,” Bolivia’s foreign minister said. He added that the move had put the president’s life at risk. “Portugal owes us an explanation. France owes us an explanation.”
The incident has so infuriated Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, that he told reporters he planned to call a regional meeting of the Union of South American Nations, (UNASUR), to discuss it.
“We consider this a huge offense, and I will call for a UNASUR special summit with foreign secretaries to discuss this issue.”
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry also condemned this incident that rose from suspicions that Edward Snowden was a stowaway on the Bolivian presidential jet. “This constitutes an unacceptable, unfounded and arbitrary act which offends all of Latin America and the Caribbean,” the ministry said in a statement.
Snowden is wanted by the US on espionage charges of leaking classified information while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA).
The leaking of thousands of classified intelligence documents prompted revelations that the US has been systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data under a program called Prism.
Snowden is still believed to be holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
By Perviz Walji