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Bolivian leader returns after EU row over US leaker

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Bolivian President Evo Morales headed home Wednesday after European nations forced an unceremonious grounding of his jet on suspicion US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was on board.

The suspicions about the US fugitive were not confirmed by a search of the jet in Austria, an incident which fueled outrage among Latin American leaders and sparked protests in the Bolivian capital La Paz.

Bolivian officials accused France, Portugal, Italy and Spain of denying entry to Morales's jet late Tuesday due to "unfounded rumors" Snowden was on board.

Morales -- who was expected to land in La Paz shortly after midnight local time (0400 GMT Thursday) -- portrayed his unpresidential plight as "like a near 13-hour kidnapping" and his government announced it had lodged a complaint with the United Nations.

In La Paz, about 100 protesters threw stones and burned the French flag at Paris's embassy, with protesters chanting "Fascist France, get out of Bolivia!"

The presidential palace said protest rallies were also planned outside the embassies of the United States, Portugal and Italy.

The US embassy in La Paz, apparently fearing protests on Thursday, called off planned US Independence Day celebrations.

The controversy rippled across the region, with both left and right-leaning governments expressing outrage over the incident.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the incident "an attack against President Morales's life," echoing earlier claims by Bolivia itself.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff expressed "indignation" over the treatment of Morales, calling it a "provocation" that concerned "all of Latin America."

Chile's right-leaning government said it "rejects and regrets" the treatment of the Bolivian leader.

Leftist Latin America leaders are preparing to meet in Bolivia on Thursday following the controversial diversion of his jet.

Among those expected to attend are Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, and Uruguay's Jose Mujica, Garcia said.

Ban Ki-moon's spokesman said the UN leader "understands the concerns raised by the Bolivian government regarding the actions that a number of states may have taken involving an aircraft carrying" Morales.

"He is relieved that this unfortunate incident did not lead to consequences for the safety of President Morales and his entourage," said UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.

"He urges the states concerned to discuss the matter with full respect for the legitimate interests involved."

Snowden, 30, has been stranded in the Russian capital since June 23, seeking to avoid extradition over US espionage charges after leaking details of vast secret surveillance programs to the media.

Snowden's revelations about alleged US spying on European allies has sparked a diplomatic row, with French President Francois Hollande having threatened to block negotiations on a major free trade agreement until Paris is sure spying on EU institutions has ceased.

Germany has also expressed outrage over the spying programs, and on Wednesday US President Barack Obama sought to reassure Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call, according to the White House.

The White House said the two leaders had agreed to a "high-level meeting" between US and German security officials in the coming days to address intelligence matters, and that a US-EU dialogue on intelligence collection and data protection would begin as early as July 8.

Snowden, a former IT contractor at the National Security Agency, has applied for asylum in 21 countries, including Austria and Bolivia, and accused Washington of pressuring foreign leaders to deny him refuge.

On Wednesday, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Washington had demanded that Snowden be extradited should he set foot on Bolivian soil.

The US State Department has made similar requests to several countries where Snowden may seek asylum or transit.

On Wednesday spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the United States has an extradition treaty with Bolivia, but declined to name specific countries Washington has contacted over the Snowden affair.

Morales had earlier said his country would consider giving political asylum to Snowden.

Austria's interior ministry said that a "voluntary inspection" of Morales's plane by Vienna airport police had showed Snowden was not on board. The jet was carrying just five crew and six passengers, it added.

Morales's jet eventually left Vienna around 0945 GMT Wednesday after Spain opened its airspace. The jet made a refuelling stop in the Spanish Canary Islands, and another in Brazil.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130703/bolivian-leader-returns-after-eu-row-over-us-leaker