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Three Latin American leftist leaders offer asylum to Snowden

Bolivia's President Evo Morales (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro wave during a meeting in Cochabamba, July 4, 2013. REUTERS
Bolivia's President Evo Morales (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro wave during a meeting in Cochabamba, July 4, 2013. REUTERS

By Daniel Ramos and Daniel Wallis

LA PAZ/CARACAS (Reuters) - Bolivia offered asylum on Saturday to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, joining leftist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua in defiance of Washington, which is demanding his arrest for divulging details of secret U.S. spy programs.

Snowden, 30, is believed to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo international airport and has been trying to find a country that would give him sanctuary after he landed there from Hong Kong on June 23.

Bolivian President Evo Morales had said earlier this week that he would consider granting asylum to Snowden. But he took a harder line on Saturday, angered that some European countries banned his plane from their airspace this week on suspicion it carried Snowden.

"I want to tell ... the Europeans and Americans that last night I was thinking that as a fair protest, I want to say that now in fact we are going to give asylum to that American who is being persecuted by his fellow Americans," Morales said during a visit to the town of Chipaya.

"If we receive a legal request, we will grant asylum," he said. Bolivia's Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment on whether a formal asylum request had been received.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also offered refuge to Snowden late Friday, but the government said that by Saturday night it had not received any word back.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country had received an asylum request and could agree to it "if circumstances permit."

All three nations are members of the leftist ALBA bloc of countries that was forged by Venezuela's late Hugo Chavez and whose leaders often denounce U.S. "imperial" aggression.

Russia has kept Snowden at arm's length, saying the airport's transit area where passengers wait between flights is neutral territory and that he would only be on Russian soil if he went through passport control.

It was not clear whether the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor would accept any of the Latin American offers, nor how he would reach the countries if he does.

There are no direct commercial flights between Moscow and Venezuela's capital, Caracas, and the usual route involves changing planes in Havana. It is not clear if Cuban authorities would let him transit, however, and there was no sign of Snowden aboard the flight to Havana on Saturday.

To obtain refugee status in Bolivia, Snowden would have to submit a request to the Bolivian Embassy in Russia and would not have to be physically in Bolivia, said former Foreign Minister Armando Loayza. Ecuador, which also backs Snowden, says it could only consider granting him asylum if he made it that country.

Given the dramatic grounding in Vienna of Morales' plane, using European airspace could prove problematic.

RUSSIA IMPATIENT

Moscow has shown signs of growing impatience. Its Russia's deputy foreign minister said on Thursday that Snowden had not sought asylum there and needed to choose a place to go.

Moscow has made clear that the longer he stays, the greater the risk of the diplomatic standoff over his fate causing lasting damage to relations with Washington.

Both Russia's Foreign Ministry and President Vladimir Putin's spokesman declined to comment on Venezuela's offer.

"This is not our affair," said spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

But senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexei Pushkov, head of the lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, said asylum in Venezuela would be Snowden's best option.

The White House declined to comment. But one U.S. official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity, said: "It's fair to say in general that U.S. officials have been pressuring governments where Snowden might try to go to do the right thing here."

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous leader and a former union leader for the country's coca leaf farmers, and Maduro both condemned the U.S. spy programs that Snowden revealed and said he deserved protection.

"Who is the guilty one? A young man ... who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?" Maduro asked, to applause and cheers from ranks of military officers at a parade.

"Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?"

Foreign Minster Elias Jaua said late on Saturday that Venezuela had not heard from Snowden since Maduro made his offer.

"There has not been any type of communication," Jaua told state television. "We are waiting until Monday to know whether he confirms his wish to take asylum in Venezuela."

Since narrowly winning a presidential vote in April that followed Chavez's death from cancer, Maduro has often lambasted the United States, even accusing it of plotting to kill him.

But the former bus driver and union leader has at times also struck a much more conciliatory note, saying he is ready for better relations with Washington, based on mutual respect.

(Additional reporting by Ivan Castro in Managua, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Mark Hosenball in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk, Steve Gutterman and Lidia Kelly in Moscow; Writing by Louise Egan and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Eric Beech and Sandra Maler)

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