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South American leaders back Morales in plane row

Friday - 7/5/2013, 2:04am  ET

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa waves to reporters at Mariscal Sucre Airport prior to traveling to Bolivia for an extraordinary meeting concerning the rerouting of the Bolivian president's plane, in Tababela, Ecuador, Thursday, July 4, 2013. Correa said that situation lived by President Evo Morales is very serious and is traveling to Cochabamba to show his support for Morales who called the rerouting of his plane over suspicions that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was aboard a provocation to Latin America and urged European countries to “free themselves” from the United States. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

JUAN KARITA
Associated Press

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) -- President Evo Morales warned on Thursday that he could close the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia, as South America's leftist leaders rallied to support him after his presidential plane was rerouted amid suspicions that NSA leaker Edward Snowden was on board.

Morales again blamed Washington for pressuring European countries to refuse to allow his plane to fly through their airspace on Tuesday, forcing it to land in Vienna, Austria, in what he called a violation of international law. He had been returning from a summit in Russia during which he had suggested he would be willing to consider a request from Snowden for asylum.

Morales made his announcement as the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Suriname joined him in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on Thursday for a special meeting to address the diplomatic row.

In a joint statement read after the summit, the presidents demanded an explanation and an apology from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. They also said they would back Bolivia's official complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Latin American leaders were outraged by the incident, calling it a violation of national sovereignty and a slap in the face for a region that has suffered through humiliations by Europe and several U.S.-backed military coups.

"United we will defeat American imperialism. We met with the leaders of my party and they asked us for several measures and if necessary, we will close the embassy of the United States," Morales said in the city where he started his political career as a leader of coca leaf farmers. "We do not need the embassy of the United States."

Morales' government has had a conflictive relationship with Washington.

It expelled the U.S. ambassador and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 for allegedly inciting the opposition. The Andean nation restored full diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 2011. But relations soured again amid mutual distrust on drug war politics and hit an especially low point after Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America as Washington's "backyard" in April 2013.

Morales expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development in May for allegedly seeking to undermine his government.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said Thursday that he and other leaders were offering full support to Morales following the rerouting of the plane, calling it an aggression against the Americas.

"We're not going to accept that in the 21st century there's first, second and third rate countries," Correa said.

"The leaders and authorities in Europe have to take a lesson in history and understand that we're not 500 years behind. This Latin America of the 21st century is independent, dignified and sovereign."

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro protested alleged attempts by Spanish officials to search the Bolivian presidential plane.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said Latin Americans treasured freedom after fighting for their independence from Europe in the 19th century and then surviving Washington's 20th-century history of backing repressive regimes in the Americas.

She then demanded an apology for the plane ordeal.

"I'm asking those who violated the law in calm but serious manner, to take responsibility for the errors made, it's the least they can do," Fernandez said. "To apologize for once in their life, to say they're sorry for what they've done."

Morales has said that while the plane was parked in Vienna, the Spanish ambassador to Austria arrived with two embassy personnel and they asked to search the plane. He said he denied them permission.

"Who takes the decision to attack the president of a South American nation?" Maduro asked. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano "Rajoy has been abusive by trying to search Morales' plane in Spain. He has no right to breach international law."

Morales, long a fierce critic of U.S. policy toward Latin America, received a hero's welcome in an airport in the Bolivian capital of La Paz late Wednesday night. His return followed the dramatic, unplanned 14-hour layover in Vienna.

Bolivia's government said France, Spain and Portugal refused to let the president's plane through their airspace because of suspicions that Snowden was with Morales.

Ahead of the meeting, Morales had said that his ordeal was part of a plot by the U.S. to intimidate him and other Latin American leaders.

He urged European nations to "free themselves" from the United States. "The United States is using its agent (Snowden) and the president (of Bolivia) to intimidate the whole region," he said.

France sent an apology to the Bolivian government. But Morales said "apologies are not enough because the stance is that international treaties must be respected."

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