BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Latin American leaders slammed European governments on Wednesday for diverting Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane on rumors it was carrying a wanted former U.S. spy agency contractor, adding a new diplomatic spat to the Edward Snowden saga.
Morales was returning from Moscow on Tuesday when France and Portugal abruptly banned his plane from entering their airspace due to suspicions that Snowden, wanted by Washington for leaking secrets, was onboard. Italy and Spain also banned the Bolivian plane from their skies.
The unusual treatment of the Bolivian military aircraft touched a sensitive nerve in the region, which has a history of U.S.-backed coups. Several furious presidents from across the region rallied behind Morales and protests erupted on the streets of Bolivia.
"(These are) vestiges of a colonialism that we thought were long over. We believe this constitutes not only the humiliation of a sister nation but of all South America," Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said in a speech in Buenos Aires.
Heads of state in the 12-nation South American bloc Unasur denounced the "unfriendly and unjustifiable acts" and some members wanted an emergency summit in Bolivia. Ministers from the bloc will meet to discuss the affair in Lima on Thursday.
The bloc includes the leftist leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia as well as more moderate ones in Chile and Brazil. Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador were among the other Latin American countries speaking out against the Europeans' actions.
"These are times of sovereign, democratic, popular governments that won't be pushed around by foreign powers," said Venezuelan communications minister Ernesto Villegas.
Brazil's foreign ministry spokesman said the government would not comment on its own because Unasur would do so collectively. The Chilean foreign ministry issued a statement saying it "lamented" what happened to Morales and that more clarity was needed on the facts.
Bolivian officials were quick on Tuesday to accuse the United States of strong-arming the Europeans into denying access to their air space in an "act of intimidation" against Morales for suggesting while attending an energy conference in Moscow that he would consider granting asylum to Snowden if requested.
The restrictions were later lifted and Morales was on his way home after a stopover in the Canary Islands.
Snowden is believed to be still in the transit area of a Moscow airport, where he has been trying since June 23 to find a country that will offer him refuge from prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.
The Bolivian government said it had filed a formal complaint with the United Nations and was studying other legal avenues to prove its rights had been violated under international law.
Legal experts say Bolivia could take its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if Austrian officials had boarded Morales' plane in Vienna without his consent, presumably to search for Snowden.
Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said authorities did not board the plane, contradicting an Austrian official who said the aircraft had been boarded and checked.
Some Bolivians took to the streets in protest, burning the French and European Union flags outside the French Embassy in the capital of La Paz.
Bolivia is part of the ALBA alliance of Latin American socialist countries that has for years delighted in confronting Washington.
Morales has yet to restore full diplomatic relations with the United States after expelling the U.S. ambassador in 2008.
But the regional leftist bloc's two leading members - Cuba and Venezuela - are in a cautious rapprochement with the United States that likely would be dashed if they gave sanctuary to Snowden.
U.S. President Barack Obama has warned that giving Snowden asylum would carry serious costs.
(Reporting by Louise Egan; Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos in La Paz, Marco Aquino in Lima, Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Eric Beech)
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