The Tale of the Re-Routed Bolivian President's Plane Is Falling Apart

Philip Bump
The Tale of the Re-Routed Bolivian President's Plane Is Falling Apart

As you may have heard by now, Bolivian president supposedly had a tough time flying from home from Moscow last night afte France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain refused to allow his plane to enter their airspace and Austria forced his plane to land and searched it. Except: Much of that reporting comes from a single source, the Bolivian government, and some of it has been contradicted.

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We took a look at each claim to evaluate its accuracy.

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The claim: France and Spain denied the plane use of its airspace.

The first reports that the countries had rejected requests from Morales' pilots to fly through their airspace appeared in a story from the Associated Press.

In a midnight press conference, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia said that not only France and Portugal, but also Italy and Spain were denying the plane permission to fly through their airspace. …

"The ambassador for Spain in Austria has just informed us that there is no authorization to fly over Spanish territory and that at 9 a.m. Wednesday they would be in contact with us again," said Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra ...

A later Guardian story offers more details from Bolivia's foreign minister, David Choquehuanca.

Choquehuanca earlier told reporters in Bolivia that Portugal and France had abruptly cancelled air permits. "They say it was due to technical issues, but after getting explanations from some authorities we found that there appeared to be some unfounded suspicions that Mr Snowden was on the plane."

Today, France and Spain disputed Choquehuanca's claims, as reported by the AP.

Two officials with the French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Morales' plane had authorization to fly over France. They would not comment on why Bolivian officials said otherwise. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named according to ministry policy.

An official with Spain's foreign ministry said Wednesday that the country on Tuesday authorized Morales' plane to fly within its airspace and to make a refueling stop. The official said Bolivia asked again this morning for permission and got it.

The refueling stop was apparently in the Canary Islands, a stop which occurred Wednesday afternoon. The Guardian offers more clarity.

Spain, where Morales's plane is due to refuel during its current journey, denied Bolivian claims that it only agreed to allow the plane to refuel in the Canaries if Bolivian authorities allowed it to be inspected. The foreign minister said this was not the case. The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said authorisation was given for the refuelling stop but that it was important that Snowden was not aboard.

There is a decent amount of wiggle room in both countries' statements, as is the nature of official responses from government agencies. For example, does France's denial extend to Tuesday? It's not clear.

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The claim: The plane was "re-routed" to Austria.

The AP's original article, which suggests that the plane was re-routed to Austria, quotes Choquehuanca as saying that the refusal of France and Portugal to allow Morales to fly overhead "put the president's life at risk." An audio recording between the plane's pilots and air traffic control in Austria might explain why, as the Guardian pointed out.

listen to ‘Bolivia Air Force - Fuerza Aérea Boliviana - FAB001 flight precaution landing Vienna Austria’ on Audioboo

Control tower: Do you need any assistance?

Pilot: Not at this moment. We need to land because we cannot get a correct indication of the fuel indication so as a precaution we need to land.

Why the plane landed in Austria isn't clear, but it doesn't seem to have been at the insistence of the Austrians.

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According to records of the plane's flight path, it travelled from Russia into Belarus, then over Poland and the Czech Republic until it entered Austrian airspace. Midway over Austria, the plane turned west, then doubled back before landing. (You can watch the flight path in an animation here.) If it was rerouted from its original path, that only occurred once the plane was in Austria.

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The claim: Portugal and Italy denied use of its airspace.

The Guardian has more on this claim, too.

The Portuguese foreign ministry said that Portugal had granted permission for the plane to fly through its airspace but declined Bolivia's request for a refuelling stop in Lisbon due to unspecified technical reasons.

We reached out to the embassies of Portugal and Italy Wednesday afternoon; neither had representatives immediately available to answer questions. Italian authorities didn't respond to requests from the Associated Press either.

The claim: The plane was searched.

Once the plane was on the ground, members of the airport police force walked through the plane, according to a reporter who spoke with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald. According to The New York Times, permission to do so was granted by the Bolivians.

The claim: Snowden could have been on the plane.

This is perhaps the easiest claim to debunk. Morales' plane, The Times notes, departed from Vnukovo Airport, which is 27 miles away and on the opposite side of Moscow, from Sheremetyevo Airport where Snowden is currently living.

Photo: Evo Morales sits with the president of Austria. (AP)