Bolivian President Evo Morales has warned he could shut down the US embassy in the capital La Paz in order “to defeat North American imperialism”, after his plane from Moscow was forced to land in Vienna because of suspicions it was harbouring the American fugitive Edward Snowden.
Mr Morales slammed Europe as an “agent” of the United States after four countries allegedly refused permission for his jet to enter their airspace, and five other South American leaders joined forces to denounce his “virtual kidnapping”.
At a summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said: “Europe broke all the rules of the game. We're here to tell President Evo Morales that he can count on us. Whoever picks a fight with Bolivia, picks a fight with Venezuela.”
As a statement was released demanding answers from France, Portugal, Italy and Spain, a furious Mr Morales said: “My hand would not shake if it came to closing the embassy. Without the United States we are better off politically and democratically.”
The rerouting of Mr Morales’s plane to Austria on Tuesday came just days after fresh allegations emerged that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had bugged European Union offices, threatening to overshadow the start of trade talks between the two economic powers. President Barack Obama agreed in a telephone conversation with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to high-level talks to try to allay concerns over the claims, but indignation remains high.
The European Parliament passed a motion recommending the EU scrap two transatlantic information-sharing agreements unless Washington comes clean on its alleged spying operations. And a French minister publicly berated the US at an embassy garden party in Paris.
While the US is fending off questions about its conduct after the leaks by Mr Snowden, a former NSA contractor, Europe faced a backlash over Mr Morales’s unscheduled night in Vienna. He had been in Moscow, where Mr Snowden is believed to be holed up at the main airport, which prompted rumours that Bolivia may be considering spiriting the fugitive to South America.
After a search of his jet proved those rumours to be unfounded, Mr Morales was allowed to leave on Wednesday. Arriving back home to La Paz early this morning, the leftist President accused the US of using “the agent of North American imperialism to scare us and intimidate us”. He said: “I regret this, but I want to say that some European countries should free themselves from North American imperialism.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the alleged closure of French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese airspace “could hardly be considered friendly” towards Bolivia and other Latin American leaders have also issued strong statements condemning the incident.
While Spain and Portugal have denied the Bolivian claims that they closed their airspace, the French government apologised to Mr Morales and blamed “late confirmation of permission” for the plane to cross French skies. France has so far been the most outspoken in its criticism of the US and had advocated delaying the start to trade negotiations on Monday. At a garden party hosted by the US ambassador to France to mark 4 July, the French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, told hundreds of guests that “we must say things clearly, directly, frankly”.
Mr Valls said demands for an explanation were justified because “such practices, if proven, do not have their place between allies and partners”.
France, however, is facing its own questions after claims were published in Le Monde newspaper that it also had a covert spying operation, with the external intelligence agency allegedly monitoring emails, social media and phone calls. Le Monde, citing unnamed intelligence sources, reported that “emails, text messages, telephone records, access to Facebook and Twitter are then stored for years”. The French spy agency, DGSE, did not comment on the report.
French objections over the start of the trade talks were overruled by the European Commission and Germany.