A plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales was rerouted to Austria after France and Portugal refused to let it cross their airspace because of suspicions that CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.
Officials in both Austria and Bolivia said Mr Snowden was not on the plane, which was taking Mr Morales home from a summit in Russia, where he had suggested that his government would be willing to consider granting asylum to the American.
Furious Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca said France and Portugal would have to explain why they cancelled authorisation for the plane, claiming the decision had put the president’s life at risk.
“We don’t know who invented this lie” that Mr Snowden was travelling with Mr Morales, Mr Choquehuanca said in La Paz. “We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales.”
He said that after France and Portugal cancelled authorisation for the flight, Spain’s government allowed the plane to be refuelled in its territory. From there the plane flew on to Vienna.
French government officials reached overnight said they could not confirm whether Mr Morales’ plane was denied permission to fly over France.
Officials at Portugal’s Foreign Ministry and National Civil Aviation Authority could not be reached for comment.
Leaks by Mr Snowden, a former National Security Agency systems analyst, have revealed the NSA’s sweeping data collection of US phone records and some internet traffic, though US intelligence officials have said the programmes are aimed at targeting foreigners and terror suspects mostly overseas.
He is believed to be in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries.
“This is a plot by the US government to destroy President Morales’ image,” said Bolivian defence minister Ruben Saavedra at the VIP terminal of Vienna’s airport. “We want to declare very firmly that it was an American story that Edward Snowden was on this flight.”
Mr Morales himself was present during the improvised press conference but chose not to speak to reporters. He will remain at the airport until his plane has been cleared for take-off.
Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg said Mr Snowden was not with Mr Morales.
Mr Snowden has applied for asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia and 18 other countries, according to WikiLeaks, a secret spilling website that has been advising him. Many European countries on the list – including Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland – said he would have to make his request on their soil.
WikiLeaks said requests had also been made to Brazil, China, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Iceland, India, Italy and Nicaragua.
One of Mr Snowden’s best chances of finding refuge outside the United States may hinge on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who was also in Russia yesterday.
Mr Maduro told Russian reporters that his country had not received an application for asylum from Mr Snowden and dodged the question of whether he would take him with him when he left.
But Mr Maduro also defended him. “Who must protect Snowden? This is the question. This young man of 29 was brave enough to say that we need to protect the world from the American imperial elite, so who should protect him?” Mr Maduro said in response to a question from journalists covering a ceremony to rename a Moscow street after the late president Hugo Chavez.
“All of mankind, people all over the world must protect him.”
Mr Maduro was due to spend today in neighbouring Belarus before returning to Venezuela.
In Venezuela, foreign minister Elias Jaua said that changing the flight’s route without checking on how much fuel it had put the endangered Mr Morales.
“All the countries that have denied permission for the flight of our brother president, Evo Morales, must be held responsible for his life and his dignity as president,” he said.
Another possible landing spot for Mr Snowden is Ecuador, where WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange has been seeking asylum.
“We are willing to analyse Mr. Snowden’s request for asylum and this position has not changed,” said Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino. “What we have said is that we will be able to analyse the request when Mr Snowden is in Ecuadorean territory or in an Ecuadorean mission.”
Mr Patino said Ecuador was not working to help Mr Snowden reach its territory.
Mr Snowden, who recently turned 30, withdrew a bid for asylum in Russia when he learned the terms Moscow had set out, according to President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Mr Putin said on Monday that Russia was ready to shelter Mr Snowden as long as he stopped leaking US secrets.
At the same time, Mr Putin said he had no plans to turn over Mr Snowden to the United States.
Rebuffed by Russia’s president, the Obama administration has recently toned down demands that Mr Snowden be expelled from the Moscow airport in a sign that the US believes he is not worth scuttling diplomatic relations between the former Cold War enemies.