Just days after the US President’s claim that he would not ‘‘be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker’’, the Obama administration was accused of doing precisely that.
Bolivian leader Evo Morales had his presidential aircraft hounded through different sectors of European airspace on Tuesday – in the apparent belief that Mr Morales was smuggling US mega-leaker Edward Snowden to asylum.
We want to express our displeasure because this has put the president's life at risk
Furious Bolivian officials, backed by their equally voluble Venezuelan counterparts, accused France and Portugal of ‘‘putting at risk the life of the [Bolivian] president’’ in what Bolivian Defence Minister Ruben Saavedra described as a ‘‘hostile act by the US State Department which has used various European governments’’.
Morales of the story? Don't mess with Washington. Photo: AFP
The leaders of the two South American countries had been attending a conference on natural gas in Moscow, which was completely overshadowed by the Snowden affair.
There had been speculation at press conferences in Moscow that either Mr Morales or his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro might invite the marooned Snowden to fly back to their homelands with them – and though Lisbon, Paris and Washington were refusing to comment on Tuesday’s diplomatic air scramble, it appears that the Americans might have taken a South American bait.
Running low on fuel, Mr Morales’ flight was diverted to Vienna after France and Portugal withdrew pro forma permission for it to travel in their airspace.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks in Moscow. Photo: AP
Even before the flight had taken off, Portugal had mysteriously withdrawn pre-issued permission for it to refuel at Lisbon ahead of the long haul across the Atlantic.
The aircraft was in the air and within minutes of its scheduled entry into French airspace when Paris followed suit.
‘‘We don’t know who invented this lie,’’ said Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca. ‘‘We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales.
‘‘They say it was due to technical issues, but after getting explanations from some authorities we found there appeared to be some unfounded suspicion that Mr Snowden was on the plane.’’
As Mr Morales cooled his heels at a Vienna airport, Austrian officials told reporters that indeed Snowden was not on the presidential aircraft.
Meanwhile, Mr Morales’ flight crew faced challenges in finding a route home to Bolivia – Italy was now denying permission for the flight to transit its airspace.
In recent days it has been President Vladimir Putin who had been having fun at the expense of the furious Americans. But as the Russian leader became more serious, setting conditions that would make it impossible for Snowden to remain in Russia, the two South Americans started acting up.
At the end of a Russian TV appearance in which he said he would consider any request from Snowden, Mr Maduro wrapped up the interview on a cheeky note – ‘‘It’s time for me to go – Snowden is waiting for me.’’
Likewise, Mr Morales said Bolivia wanted to ‘‘shield the denounced’’.
In keeping with the absurd tenor of much of this saga, Snowden’s father Lon Snowden responded to a message from his son that he should keep quiet – reportedly relayed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through Snowden snr’s lawyer – by publishing an open letter in which he praises his son and defends him as a modern day Paul Revere, ‘‘summoning the American people to confront the growing danger of tyranny and one-branch government’’.
But Snowden jnr (who turned 30 during the recent week of transit turmoil) had more pressing issues to deal with – it emerged that the more countries in which he seeks refuge, the more knockbacks he gets.
Throughout Tuesday, the rejections came thick and fast. All but two out of 21 capitals to which Snowden had applied hung him out to dry – only Venezuela and Bolivia seemed to offer him a chance to break free from the limbo of a Moscow transit lounge.
At the same time, the Russians keep repeating two things – one of which seems to be believed more than the other. First, they will not go into the transit lounge and snatch Snowden for the Americans; and second, their intelligence services are not trying to bleed Snowden or his four laptops of all they know and/or contain.
The language of some US reporting on the Snowden case is intriguing. Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times reports: ‘‘The US has engaged an array of countries that have considered granting [Snowden] asylum, making clear that doing so would carry big costs.’’
Oddly, the word ‘‘threat’’ does not appear in such reports.
On Tuesday, a State Department spokeswoman responded to the bullying allegations thus: ‘‘I’m not sure what the basis for those claims are.’’
Doesn’t quite amount to a denial, does it?