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Bolivia: Presidential plane forced to land after false rumors of Snowden onboard

Edward Snowden

By Catherine E. Shoichet

(CNN) — Bolivian officials say their country’s presidential plane had to land in Austria on Tuesday after false rumors circulated that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was aboard the aircraft.

Portuguese authorities wouldn’t let President Evo Morales’ plane land for refueling in Lisbon, Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra told CNN en Español. French authorities also wouldn’t let the plane enter their airspace, he said.

“We are told that there were some unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on the plane,” Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said. “We do not know who has invented this lie. Someone who wants to harm our country. This information that has been circulated is malicious information to harm this country.”

The plane had been flying from Moscow back to Bolivia.

The original flight plan had a refueling stop scheduled in Lisbon, said Saavedra, who is traveling with Morales. The crew changed course for the Canary Islands once Portuguese authorities told them they couldn’t land there for “technical reasons,” the defense minister said. Right before the plane was about to fly over the French border, authorities there said they couldn’t enter the country’s airspace, again citing “technical issues,” according to Saavedra.

“The crew informed us of this situation … and out of caution they suggested we turn back and land at the airport in Vienna, which we did,” Saavedra said.

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The foreign minister said authorities from the South American country are investigating the source of the false rumors about Snowden.

Saavedra told CNN en Español that he believed the United States government was behind the rumors.

“This is a lie, a falsehood,” he said. “It was generated by the U.S. government.”

Bolivia’s air travel rights were violated, he said.

“It is an outrage. It is an abuse. It is a violation of the conventions and agreements of international air transportation,” he said.

Bolivia’s foreign minister told reporters that the move had put the president’s life at risk.

“Portugal owes us an explanation. France owes us an explanation,” Choquehuanca said.

Morales had been in Russia for a conference of gas-exporting countries, where he told the Russia Today news network that he would be willing to consider asylum for Snowden.

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

“We cannot lie to the international community by carrying ghost passengers,” Choquehuanca said.

The situation drew a swift rebuke from Ecuador’s foreign minister, who told reporters he planned to call a regional meeting of the Union of South American Nations, known as UNASUR, to discuss it.

“We consider this a huge offense, and I will call for a UNASUR special summit with foreign secretaries to discuss this issue,” Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said.

CNN’s Claudia Rebaza, Rafael Romo and Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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