, MOSCOW, Jul 3 – US fugitive Edward Snowden’s struggle to find a safe haven sparked a diplomatic row on Tuesday after Bolivia President Evo Morales’ plane was diverted to Austria over suspicions he might be 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, Italy and Portugal of having denied airspace to the plane, forcing it to reroute.
“The president was forced to land in Vienna,” he told reporters in La Paz. Morales’s life had been endangered by what he described as a forced emergency landing, he added.
“There were unfounded rumours that Mr Snowden may have been on board the aircraft,” Choquehuanca said.
“We have no idea who made up this huge lie.”
Austrian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg confirmed to AFP that Morales’ plane had landed at Vienna and that Snowden was not on board.
“President Morales will leave early Wednesday morning for La Paz,” the Bolivian capital, he added. Austria did not know why the plane had landed at Vienna, he said.
Officials at the French foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office said they knew nothing about the incident.
Earlier Tuesday, Morales had been asked about Snowden’s bid for a haven, as Washington sought his extradition for having leaked intelligence secrets.
“If there were a request, of course we would be willing to debate and consider the idea,” Morales told Russia’s state-run RT television in comments translated from Spanish.
Bolivia is one of 21 nations to which Snowden had applied for asylum, according to the website of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which helped file the requests.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday Snowden had already withdrawn his application there. Putin made it clear on Sunday that he would have to end revelations about US intelligence activities if he wanted to stay.
A number of other countries on his list were quick to either reject his application or give it a cool reaction.
Germany, the Netherlands and Poland rejected Snowden’s asylum bid; an Indian foreign ministry said there was “no reason to accede to the request”; Brazil said it was “not going to respond”.
Austria, Finland, Iceland and Norway each said Snowden’s request was invalid because it was not filed from inside their respective countries. Ireland and Spain issued similar statements.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said they knew nothing about a bid apart from media reports.
France and Switzerland said they had not yet received an application, while Italy said it was “contemplating” the request.
As Snowden’s options narrowed however, there was some comfort from Morales’ response.
And another leftist Latin American leader, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, also offered him a degree of hope.
Maduro, who like Morales was in Moscow for a two-day energy summit, praised Snowden’s actions in leaking information on US spying activities.
“What is happening now should not be – he never killed anyone or planted any bombs,” he added.
But Maduro refused to entertain Russian media speculation that he might take Snowden on a plane with him from Moscow.
Snowden has remained quiet and out of sight of reporters since arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport.
His initial plan, on arriving from Hong Kong on June 13, had been to take a flight to Cuba the following day. He never claimed the seat he had booked however, because he lacked the proper boarding papers after Washington revoked his US passport.
Late Monday, he issued his first statement since arriving in Moscow – a blistering attack on the United States.
He accused Washington, which has charged him with espionage for his intelligence leaks, of pressuring foreign leaders to refuse him refuge.
“These are the old, bad tools of political aggression,” Snowden said in a statement published by WikiLeaks.
“Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.”
But a top US official rejected Snowden’s claims that Washington was leaning on countries to leave him out in the cold.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the US was simply telling countries that “Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information”.
She added: “He is somebody that we would like to see returned to the United States, of course. And we are hopeful that will happen.”
Snowden’s latest major leak about US spying on EU countries has angered many European governments and threatened to derail preparations for delicate talks on a massive free trade deal between Washington and Brussels.