The hunt for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden took another intriguing turn on Tuesday evening after the Austrian authorities searched Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane for signs of the former CIA contractor after the leader’s flight was grounded in Vienna during a trip home from Moscow.
The development highlighted the intensifying and at times bizarre drama surrounding Snowden, 30, who has hid in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport since June 23 and has seen many of his nearly two dozen asylum applications to countries around the globe fall flat.
This time, the affair sparked an international row after the Bolivian authorities lashed out at Austria for what they said was an act of aggression.
According to the Bolivians, Morales’s flight was grounded in Vienna after French and Portuguese officials prevented the plane from crossing their airspace because of suspicion that Snowden may have been on board.
Thosse decisions may have been prompted by comments supporting Snowden yesterday by both Morales and Venezuelan President Nicloas Maduro, who were in Moscow for a natural gas summit.
The Latin American leaders’ stance prompted speculation that Maduro might whisk the whistleblower away from the airport on his flight back home.
But Maduro batted down those rumors on Tuesday, and Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca slammed the “unfounded suspicions” that led to Austria’s search of the Bolivian plane.
"We don't know who invented this lie," Reuters reported Choquehuanca as saying. "We want to express our displeasure because this has put the president's life at risk."
The Austrian authorities later confirmed they found no trace of Snowden.
Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN, Sacha Llorenti Soliz, claimed the move was ordered by the White House and said his country would file an official complaint at the UN.
Bolivia and Venezuela are among the few countries that remain open to considering an offer of asylum to Snowden.
His flight from US prosecution appears to be growing more futile by the day. A number of countries have either rejected his asylum requests outright or noted that he would have to make them in person — a virtual impossibility after the United States revoked his passport.
Even Ecuador, which had earlier mused about the idea of offering asylum, has since pedaled back its support. President Rafael Correa has said that Ecuador’s provision of travel documents, which enabled Snowden to fly from Hong Kong to Moscow, was “a mistake.”
More from GlobalPost: What are Snowden's chances of getting asylum?
Although Russia initially appeared willing to consider an offer of asylum, Snowden withdrew his request on Tuesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimatum that he quit “harming our American partners” through his leaks of classified information.
Putin’s unusually cautious statement provided another strange turn in the saga, striking an awkward chord in a country he’s positioned as one of the chief American rivals in the world.
Moscow may have originally welcomed Snowden as a geopolitical asset. However, observers have argued that the Kremlin perceives his recent promise to leak more information as a liability and that its patience with him is wearing thin.