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Snowden search on Bolivian plane sparks Latin American criticism

Leaders across Latin America shared concerns about the significance of the diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane. Bolivian officials suggested the United States encouraged the diversion because Morales previously suggested he would consider granting asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

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A spokesman at France's Foreign Ministry blamed the flap on "an administrative mishap," saying France never intended to ban Morales from its airspace and that there were delays in getting confirmation that the plane had fly-over permits.

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International agreements allow civilian airplanes to overfly countries without obtaining permission ahead of every flight. But state aircraft including Air Force One, the plane that carries the U.S. president, must obtain clearance before they cross into foreign territory.

Government aircraft, whether carrying diplomats or missiles, always require approval before they can enter foreign airspace, legal experts said.

"Every state on the basis of state sovereignty has the right to deny overflight to state aircraft," said John Mulligan, a research fellow at the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago.

Anti-U.S rhetoric 

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 that while attending an energy conference in Moscow he would consider granting asylum to Snowden if requested. Morales said earlier this week no request had been made.

The White House declined to comment on the assertion that it was behind the plane scandal.

President Barack Obama has warned that giving Snowden asylum would carry serious costs.

Morales was expected back in Bolivia on Wednesday night.

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.

Morales has yet to restore full diplomatic relations with the United States after expelling the U.S. ambassador in 2008.

In May of this year, Morales expelled a U.S. development agency from Bolivia in protest after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America as Washington's "backyard."

The comment was a stark reminder of the United States' history exploiting South America's natural resources and supporting some repressive right-wing governments.

This week's diplomatic mess was bad news for American expatriates planning to celebrate the Fourth of July at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. The embassy said late on Wednesday that its Independence Day party had been put off "until further notice."

(Additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington, Daniel Ramos in La Paz, Marco Aquino in Lima, Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, and Alexandra Ulmer in Santiago; Editing by Xavier Briand and Peter Cooney)

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