MOSCOW: Fugitive United States (US) intelligence leaker Edward Snowden’s struggle to find a safe haven sparked a diplomatic row on Wednesday after Bolivia President Evo Morales’s plane was diverted to Austria over suspicions he was on board.
The incident happened hours after Morales had said his country would consider a request for political asylum if Snowden submitted one.
Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca accused France and Portugal of having denied airspace to the plane, forcing it to reroute over a “huge lie” that Snowden was travelling with Morales.
Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said Italy had also closed its airspace.
“The president was forced to land in Vienna,” Choquehuanca told reporters in La Paz, alleging that Morales’s life had been put in danger by what he called a forced emergency landing. “There were unfounded rumors that Mr Snowden may have been on board the aircraft.”
Morales had been on a visit to Moscow, where Snowden has been holed up in an airport transit area since June 23. He is seeking to avoid US espionage charges for revealing a vast surveillance program to collect phone and Internet data.
Austrian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg confirmed that Morales’s plane had landed in Vienna and that Snowden was not on board.
Morales angrily denied any wrongdoing after his plane was diverted to Vienna.
“I’m not a criminal,” the Austria Press Agency quoted Morales as saying at Vienna airport, after France, Italy, Spain and Portugal denied his plane entry into their airspace overnight.
Officials at the French foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office said overnight they knew nothing about the incident.
Saavedra later told Bolivian state media that France and Portugal had now cleared Morales to continue his journey.
Bolivia is one of 21 nations to which Snowden has applied for asylum, according to the website of the anti-secrecy group Wiki-Leaks, which helped file the requests.
Morales on Tuesday said he was open to taking in Snowden.