A diplomatic crisis engulfing three continents was sparked at midnight after the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was rerouted to Austria after France and Portugal refused to let it cross their airspace - suspecting whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.
But officials in both Austria and Bolivia said that Snowden was not on the plane taking Morales home from a summit in Russia.
Bolivia is one of 21 countries where Snowden applied for asylum, and Morales had hinted in a TV interview that the country was considering the request.
"We want to declare very firmly that it was an American story that Edward Snowden was on this flight," Defence Minister Ruben Saavedra said in a statement to reporters at the airport."
This is a plot by the US government to destroy president Morales' image. We say this simply is a lie. And we will confirm this."
— Olivera Stajić (@OliveraStajic) July 3, 2013ADVERTISEMENT
Calling a late night press conference in La Paz, a visibly seething David Choquehuanca, Bolivia's foreign minister said that France and Portugal had put the life of their president at risk and that it was an "invented lie" that Snowden was on board.
"We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales."
The plane landed briefly in Spain to refuel before being diverted to Vienna. Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg told The Associated Press that Snowden was not with Morales.
Other South American countries also expressed indignation.
Argentina's Cristina Kirchner tweeted that the International Court of Justice should send a judge with an injunction to Austria if Morales is not allowed to leave soon: "Mother of God! I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What a world!" she said.
Venezuela's Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the European nations had played a dangerous game: "All the countries that have denied permission for the flight of our brother president, Evo Morales, must be held responsible for his life and his dignity as president."
Cuba's Foreign Ministry released a statement saying: "This constitutes an unacceptable, unfounded and arbitrary act which offends all of Latin America and the Caribbean."
"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.
Morales left Austria after more than nine hours in the airport. France and Spain both officially denied banning his plane from the airport.
British human rights campaigners criticised the debacle.
Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes said: "Members of the EU have a duty to protect freedom of expression and should not interfere in an individual’s attempts to seek asylum. Edward Snowden is a whistleblower whose free speech rights should be protected not criminalised."
Amnesty International Director of Law and Policy Michael Bochenek said: “The US attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum are deplorable.
“It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded. No country can return a person to another country where there is a serious risk of ill-treatment.
“We know that others who have been prosecuted for similar acts have been held in conditions that not only Amnesty International but UN officials considered cruel inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of international law.
“It appears he is being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its - and other governments’ - unlawful actions that violate human rights.
“No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression.
“Snowden is a whistleblower. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world. And yet instead of addressing or even owning up to these actions, the US government is more intent on going after Edward Snowden.
“Any forced transfer to the USA would put him at risk of human rights violations and must be challenged.”