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Faulty lead linked Snowden to Bolivian jet, European officials say

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Juan Karita/AP

(Read caption) Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (l.), Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (r.), and Bolivia's President Evo Morales acknowledge supporters during a welcome ceremony for Latin American leaders attending a meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday, July 4. Morales said Thursday that the rerouting of his plane in Europe was due to suspicions that the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was on board.

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In the first official statement from Europe tying former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to the forced grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales' flight in Austria Tuesday, the Spanish government confirmed Friday that it and other European governments had been told Mr. Snowden was on board the plane.

The Guardian reports that Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said on television Friday that "they told us that the information was clear, that he was inside" the Bolivian presidential plane. Mr. García-Margallo did not say who "they" was, or whether he had been in contact with the United States.

Mr. Morales and other Latin American leaders were outraged on Tuesday night when their plane, flying from Moscow to La Paz, Bolivia, was reportedly denied permission to fly through French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish airspace, forcing it to land in Austria. The Bolivian government, which has been considering Snowden's asylum application, said the grounding was due to suspicions that the American was on board. But as the BBC notes, no European officials had confirmed they had such suspicions before the Spanish announcement Friday.

While García-Margallo did confirm the Snowden connection to the flight's grounding, Reuters writes that he also said that Spain "doesn't have to ask for a pardon [from Bolivia] in any way because its airspace was never closed" – leaving the rationale behind the flight's obstruction still ambiguous.

He said a permit granted on Monday for the plane to go through Spanish airspace expired when Morales was grounded in Austria after [the] French and Portuguese ban.

The permit then had to be reissued and the Bolivian presidential plane stopped in Spain's Canary Islands on Wednesday for refueling on its way back to Bolivia.

But France, another of the countries that blocked Morales' passage, has expressed "regrets" to Bolivia over the incident, reports the BBC. The French foreign ministry said in a statement that "the foreign minister called his Bolivian counterpart to tell him about France's regrets after the incident caused by the late confirmation of permission for President Morales' plane to fly over [French] territory."

The Christian Science Monitor in a report Wednesday offers that regardless of motivation, the stopping of Morales' plane was, "imperialism at its worst," according to Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

"A diplomatic plane with a president on board, diverted from its route and then searched – it is precisely the kind of mistreatment that the Bolivian government has rejected in its bilateral relations with the United States," she says. "This would not happen to President Obama’s plane; why should diplomatic protocol be shunned for President Morales?"

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In fact, the result may have increased Bolivia's willingness to help Snowden, she adds.

"Given Snowden’s situation, Bolivia is in many ways a logical choice for him,” says Ms. Youngers. “US-Bolivian relations remain tense, with no exchange of ambassadors in sight, and US economic aid to the country is at an all-time low, so Bolivia has little to lose in taking him in.”

Further, Morales threatened on Thursday to close the US embassy in response to the diplomatic incident, reports the BBC.

Ultimately, however, the plane episode appears to have had little impact on the legal limbo in which Snowden finds himself. The American is still believed to be in a Moscow airport transit zone, awaiting the outcome of his asylum applications, which have so far been broadly rejected. The Wall Street Journal reports that both Italy and France have denied his request, saying he must be present in their country in order to make an application. No nation has yet approved his request, though it is still being considered by Venezuela and Bolivia. 

Thursday did see a group of six Icelandic members of parliament submit a bill to grant Snowden citizenship in Iceland, which would give him permission to travel to and enter the country. But Forbes reports that the proposal faces "long odds" due to the government's political makeup, which turned conservative in April elections. "That election was won by the Independence and Progressive parties, while the sponsors of [parliamentarian Birgitta] Jonsdottir’s bill are members of the smaller Left Greens, Social Democrats, Bright Future and Pirate parties."


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