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Morales challenges U.S. after Snowden rumor holds up plane in Europe

By Ed Payne and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Fri July 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Spain's foreign minister says his country never closed its airspace to Morales' plane
  • South American leaders condemn the incident and call for a public apology
  • Morales is back in Bolivia after plane delayed in Europe over rumors about Edward Snowden
  • Italy denies Snowden asylum; Icelandic lawmakers weigh giving him citizenship

(CNN) -- A defiant Evo Morales was back in Bolivia on Thursday, railing against the United States after his presidential jet was held up in Europe under suspicions that U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden had hitched a ride.

France, Spain, Portugal and Italy refused to let the president's plane fly through their airspace after rumors surfaced that Snowden might be on board, Bolivian officials said. But Spain's foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo, countered that regarding his country, saying in an interview, "Spain doesn't need to make any apologies. Our air space was never closed."

With no clear path home available, the flight's crew made an emergency landing in Vienna, Austria, where it spent some 14 hours.

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The Bolivians squarely put the blame on Washington for Morales' unexpected side trip.

"Message to the Americans: The empire and its servants will never be able to intimidate or scare us," Morales told supporters at El Alto International Airport outside La Paz late Wednesday. "European countries need to liberate themselves from the imperialism of the Americans."

Speaking alongside Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at a rally in a packed stadium in Bolivia Thursday evening, Morales said officials should analyze whether to shut down the U.S. embassy in his country.

The president, who expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008, said he wouldn't hesitate to boot the embassy, too.

"Without the United States," he said, "we are better politically and democratically."

In several speeches Thursday, Morales said he had been targeted for his indigenous background.

"What happened during these days is not a coincidence, not a mistake like some governments say," Morales said. "It is part of a policy to continue intimidating the Bolivian people and Latin America."

He added, "Our sin is being indigenous and anti-imperialist."

Despite several attempts by CNN to get a response, Obama administration officials declined to comment on Bolivia's allegations that the United States pressured European countries to deny landing rights to the Bolivian president's plane, referring all questions to the European countries in question.

Outrage in Latin America

The incident has sparked a global diplomatic feud that's roiled leaders throughout Latin America.

Presidents from five South American countries -- Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela -- met with Morales in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday to discuss the matter. Diplomatic delegations from several others South American nations joined them.

The leaders issued a statement condemning the incident and calling for an apology

"We demand the governments of France, Portugal, Italy and Spain issue the necessary public apology in relation to this serious incident," the statement said.

The situation, they said, was a flagrant violation of international treaties.

"We reject the actions that clearly violated norms and basic principles of international law, like the inviolability of heads of state," they said.

The leaders said they supported Morales' complaint to the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights over the matter, and they called for their countries' foreign ministers to form a committee to investigate what happened.

In a statement Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for dialogue between Bolivia "and the European countries that barred the plane carrying President Evo Morales from flying over their airspaces this Wednesday."

According to a statement issued by his office, Ban "urges the states concerned to discuss the matter with full respect for the legitimate interests involved."

Ecuador's Correa sharply criticized the United States for its role in the situation . In a speech Thursday at the Bolivian rally, he read an excerpt from the U.S. Declaration of Independence and decried what he said was the country's hypocrisy.

"They keep having a double standard," he said.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said the countries must apologize.

"At least here in South America, when we make a mistake, we recognize it and at least ask for forgiveness from those we have offended. ... Let them apologize for once in their lives for what they have done," she said.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blamed the CIA, saying he believes the agency pressured governments to refuse to allow Morales through their airspace.

"What just happened with the South American indigenous leader Evo Morales shows the level of madness and desperation that the (U.S.) empire has reached," he said.

Opinion: Snowden and a muzzled free press

So where is Snowden?

The situation is the latest twist in what has become a global guessing game over Snowden's next steps.

Snowden has admitted leaking classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs and faces espionage charges in the United States. He has applied for asylum in 21 countries, including Bolivia.

Snowden has been holed up at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport since June 23. He arrived from Hong Kong.

'Unbowed' Snowden seeks new havens

Morales, a left-leaning president who has long criticized the United States, had been attending a conference of gas-exporting countries in Russia, where he told the Russia Today news network that he would be willing to consider asylum for Snowden.

But Bolivian officials said accusations that an official aircraft would harbor Snowden were baseless.

"We cannot lie to the international community by carrying ghost passengers," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said.

Snowden's asylum options dwindle

The fallout

Moscow condemned the nations that blocked Morales' path.

"France, Spain, and Portugal's actions (were) not friendly toward Bolivia and toward Russia," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "Moscow will demand strict observance of international law ... guaranteeing immunity of heads of state."

France denied it refused to allow the plane to enter its airspace.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called his Bolivian counterpart to express regrets about a delay in the confirmation to authorize the plane to fly over its territory, the French Foreign Ministry said.

The authorization was granted as soon as French authorities were informed the plane was the Bolivian president's aircraft, the ministry said.

France "never intended to deny president Morales' plane access to (its) airspace," and the Bolivian leader is welcome in France, Fabius said.

France was among the countries where Snowden sought asylum. France said Thursday it had refused the request.

Italy also turned down Snowden's asylum request Thursday. "There are no legal reasons to accept this request," Foreign Minister Emma Bonino told the Italian parliament.

Meanwhile, in Iceland, lawmakers from several political parties have proposed a new law to grant Snowden citizenship after receiving a request from the former NSA contractor, lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir said.

On her website, Jonsdottir published what she said was the text of a letter from Snowden.

"I want to extend my gratitude to the Icelandic parliament for considering my request for Icelandic citizenship," he said, according to Jonsdottir. "I have been left defacto-stateless by my own government after communicating with the public."

Iceland has said it can't consider Snowden's request for asylum there until he's in its territory.

CNN's Tom Watkins, Claudia Rebaza, Alexander Felton, Atika Shubert, Jill Dougherty and Claudia Dominguez contributed to this report.

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