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Moscow - Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane, ferrying him home from Moscow, was redirected to Vienna late Tuesday after France and Portugal refused to allow it to enter their airspace because of the belief that the American fugitive Edward Snowden was aboard, said Bolivian and Venezuelan authorities.
Snowden, who revealed secret U.S. surveillance programs and fled to Moscow to stay beyond American reach, was not aboard the plane, an irate Bolivian foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told reporters in Vienna, where the Bolivian delegation had landed. "We don't know who invented this lie," he said.
Choquehuanca said the plane was an hour from French airspace when it was told it could not enter. "Portugal has to explain to us," he said. "France has to explain to us why they canceled" flight authorization.
The allegation that the plane had been redirected for reasons related to Snowden could not be verified.
The White House, the CIA and State Department all declined to comment. But the latest twist seemed to signal that American authorities have been able to marshal support from European countries in what has been a feverish pursuit of the former National Security Agency contractor. It also underscored how Snowden has settled still deeper into isolation as one country after another has rejected his appeals for asylum since his disclosure of a trove of highly secret documents.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the incident over Austria "an attempt on Evo Morales's life." He said it was a sign of how far "the empire" - a reference to the United States - and it's "lackeys" would go "to hunt down a young man who has only said the truth."
For the United States, Bolivia clearly emerged as a possible sanctuary for Snowden, who was stuck in Russia after the United States revoked his passport before his arrival here on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23.
In an interview earlier Tuesday in Moscow on the state-financed RT news channel, Morales said he would consider asylum for Snowden. "Yes, why not?" he said. "Bolivia is there to welcome personalities who denounce - I don't know if it's espionage or control. But we are here."
After living unseen in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport for a week, Snowden sent out a flurry of 19 asylum requests Sunday night, according to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has been advising him. On Monday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin said he could stay here if he stopped leaking information harmful to the United States, an odd offer that Snowden refused, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday morning.
That left a list of countries, in alphabetical order from Austria to Venezuela, to which Snowden had sent appeals. By Tuesday evening, nearly half of them-including Ecuador and Iceland, which had been asked earlier-had said an applicant must be in the country to be considered. Four had said no, and others had not replied.
Some countries avoided him out of friendship with the United States, others for political or economic reasons. Ecuador, which at first had appeared enthusiastic, grew less so after Vice President Joe Biden made a friendly call to the president. To be granted asylum, Snowden would have to count on a country to defy the United States. Of those on his list, Bolivia and Venezuela were looking like the best possibilities. Both are hostile to the United States, and the presidents of both countries have heaped praise on Snowden.
Morales, who said his government had not received a formal request for asylum, in 2008 expelled the U.S. ambassador from his country and ended anti-drug cooperation with Washington.
"Bolivia, as well as Venezuela and Ecuador," he said, "are exposed to constant surveillance from the U.S. empire."
Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, was also in Moscow, which had convened a meeting of gas-exporting countries, and Russian media speculated that he would take Snowden to Venezuela on his official plane.
Maduro smiled at that suggestion. "We will take with us numerous agreements on investments in the oil and gas sector," he said. He defended the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor, however, saying that he had neither killed anyone nor planted a bomb and that he deserved protection. "He only told the world a large truth to prevent war," Maduro said. "The U.S. capitalist elite are trying to control the world and are spying on friends, foes and the entire planet."
The Obama administration on Tuesday acknowledged contacting foreign governments on Snowden's asylum list, but a State Department spokeswoman dismissed the leaker's claims that Washington has mounted a campaign to pressure anyone against offering Snowden sanctuary.
"We have been in touch, as we have been for several days now, with a broad range of countries that could serve as either transit spots or final destinations," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki. "And what we've been communicating is, of course, what we've been communicating publicly-that Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information. He is somebody that we would like to see returned to the United States."
Late Tuesday, Maduro was preparing to fly on to Belarus-without Snowden, a member of his entourage told the Interfax news agency. Nothing could be done, the official told Interfax-the Venezuelan plane was at a different airport.
After his nine days in limbo, Snowden's situation looked desperate. Officials here have portrayed themselves as powerless in the case because Snowden is outside their jurisdiction in the transit zone and needs a passport or other document before he can travel onward, but some Russians find that disingenuous. Russian officials always find a way to do exactly what they want, they say.
And that has raised questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Pavel Felgenhauer, a longtime military analyst and observer of the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, offered this speculative scenario: Russia must be trying to see if it can recruit Snowden.
In an interview Tuesday, Felgenhauer said that when Putin told reporters that Snowden could stay if he stopped talking about the United States, he was saying he had to make a choice. Putin was telling Snowden that he would be working for Russia, not for one of the newspapers publishing his leaks, Felgenhauer said.
The reason Snowden has not been seen is that border guards, who are standing at the door when an international flight lands and who work for the FSB, would have hustled him off to a safe room in the airport, or even a safe house elsewhere, Felgenhauer said. Snowden probably did not use a ticket he had to Havana on June 24, he said, because his minders told him the United States would force the Aeroflot flight down when it flew over U.S. territory.
"He's cornered psychologically," Felgenhauer said. "You bring the guy to the breaking point to see if he's real. By now he's probably afraid of everything, convinced he'll be hunted down like bin Laden if he leaves here."
As Felgenhauer put it in a Novaya Gazeta article this week, "Snowden remained in Sheremetyevo like a suitcase with a broken-off handle: a pain to carry and a shame to throw away."