PARIS (AP) — Bolivia's president left Europe for home on Wednesday amid diplomatic drama after his flight was rerouted and delayed overnight in Austria, allegedly because of suspicion he was trying to spirit NSA leaker Edward Snowden to Latin America.
Bolivia accused the United States of ordering European countries to block President Evo Morales' flight from their airspace, and accused European governments of "aggression" by thwarting the flight.
However it's still unclear whether European countries did block the plane and, if so, why. French, Spanish and Portuguese officials all said Wednesday the plane was allowed to cross their territory.
And Snowden himself remains out of public view, believed to be stuck in a Moscow airport transit area, seeking asylum from one of more than a dozen countries.
Bolivia's president sparked speculation during a visit to Russia after he said that his country would be willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden.
The plane carrying Morales home from a Moscow summit was rerouted to Vienna on Tuesday night, adding a new twist to the international uproar over Snowden's revelations of widespread U.S. surveillance. The plane took off again shortly before noon Wednesday after sitting overnight at the airport.
Austrian officials said Morales' plane was searched early Wednesday by Austrian border police after Morales gave permission. Bolivian and Austrian officials both say Snowden was not on board.
The emergency stop in Austria may have been caused by a dispute over where the plane could refuel and whether European authorities could inspect it for signs of Snowden.
Morales' aircraft asked controllers at Vienna airport to land because there was "no clear indication" that the plane had enough fuel to continue on its journey, an official in Vienna said. The official demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to go public with the information.
Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, speaking in Geneva on Wednesday, continued to insist that several European countries had refused permission for the plane to fly in their airspace.
Bolivia's U.N. ambassador Sacha Llorenti said it was an "act of aggression" and that the four countries violated international law. Llorenti said "the orders came from the United States" but other nations violated the immunity of the president and his plane, putting his life at risk.
There was no immediate U.S. response to Llorenti's accusation.
In Washington, the State Department would not comment directly Tuesday night. Earlier Tuesday, department spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not discuss how the Obama administration might respond if Snowden left the Moscow airport. "We're not there yet," he said.
Bolivian officials said that France, Portugal and Italy blocked the plane from flying over their territories based on unfounded rumors that Snowden was on board.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said "France ended up authorizing the flight over its airspace by Mr. Morales' plane."
She said the plane "was authorized to fly over French territory" but wouldn't explain whether there had been an initial refusal Tuesday night amid the rumors about Snowden's presence on the plane.
The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that Portugal had granted permission for the plane to fly through its air space but declined Bolivia's request for a refueling stop in Lisbon due to unspecified technical reasons.
Italian officials were not available to speak on the subject.
Meanwhile a separate saga played out with Spanish authorities.
Bolivia said Spain agreed to allow the plane to refuel in the Canary Islands — but only if Bolivian authorities allowed it to be inspected. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo denied Wednesday that his country demanded an inspection of the Bolivian plane.
Speaking in Berlin, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said authorization was given for the plane to stop and refuel in Spain's Canary Islands but that it was important Snowden was not aboard. He said the debate was "a little artificial."
While the Bolivian presidential plane sat in pre-dawn darkness on the tarmac in Vienna, a surreal scene played out when Spain's ambassador to Austria visited the airport to meet with Morales, the Bolivian president told reporters Wednesday.
The ambassador, Alberto Carnero, asked Morales if they could board the Bolivian plane together.
"He asked me to go have a coffee inside the plane to see the plane," Morales said, adding that he believed the request was made so the plane could be inspected.
Morales also said the ambassador pledged to give an answer about whether the plane could fly over Spain after 9 a.m. Wednesday, saying he had to consult "with friends." Morales said they were "friends of Spain" but he did not know who.
Morales said he never saw Snowden and that Bolivia has not received a formal request for asylum for him. The country would consider a request if it receives one, Morales said.
Leaks by Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst, have revealed the NSA's sweeping data collection of U.S. phone records and some Internet traffic, though U.S. intelligence officials have said the programs target foreigners and terrorist suspects mostly overseas.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia and 18 other countries, according to WikiLeaks, a secret spilling website that has been advising him. Many European countries on the list — including Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland — said he would have to make his request on their soil.
EU Transport spokeswoman Helen Kearns said it is up to national governments to allow or refuse planes entry into their airspace. She said it's unclear what happened with the Bolivian plane and whether or not it was refused access and why.
___ Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Ciaran Giles and Alan Clendenning in Madrid, George Jahn in Vienna, John Heilprin in Geneva, Raf Casert in Brussels and Barry Hatton in Portugal contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's health care law, hailed as his most significant legislative achievement, seems to be losing much of its sweep.
On Tuesday, the administration unexpectedly announced a one-year delay, until after the 2014 elections, in a central requirement of the law that medium and large companies provide coverage for their workers or face fines.
Separately, opposition in the states from Republican governors and legislators has steadily undermined a Medicaid expansion that had been expected to provide coverage to some 15 million low-income people.
Tuesday's move — which caught administration allies and adversaries by surprise — sacrificed timely implementation of Obama's signature legislation but might help Democrats politically by blunting an election-year line of attack Republicans were planning to use. The employer requirements are among the most complex parts of the health care law, designed to expand coverage for uninsured Americans.
"We have heard concerns about the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively," Treasury Assistant Secretary Mark Mazur said in a blog post. "We have listened to your feedback and we are taking action."
Business groups were jubilant. "A pleasant surprise," said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There was no inkling in advance of the administration's action, he said.
"We commend the administration's wise move," said Neil Trautwein, a vice president of the National Retail Federation. It "will provide employers and businesses more time to update their health care coverage without threat of arbitrary punishment."
But the delay could also whittle away at the law's main goal of covering the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance.
Liberals immediately raised concerns. Will employees be able to get taxpayer-subsidized individual coverage through new health insurance markets if their company does not offer medical benefits? Uninsured people can start signing up Oct. 1 for the new individual policies.
"If the administration is going to give employers a break, it should not do that at the expense of millions of uninsured or underinsured workers who have been looking to have health insurance available to them on Jan. 1, 2014," said Richard Kirsch, a senior fellow with the Roosevelt Institute in New York, a think tank dedicated to promoting progressive policies.
Under the health law, companies with 50 or more workers must provide affordable coverage to their full-time employees or risk a series of escalating tax penalties if just one worker ends up getting government-subsidized insurance. Originally, that requirement was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, 2014. It will now be delayed to 2015.
Most medium-sized and large business already offer health insurance and the mandate was expected to have the biggest consequences for major chain hotels, restaurants and retail stores that employ many low-wage workers. Some had threatened to cut workers' hours, and others said they were putting off hiring.
Business groups have complained since the law passed that the provision was too complicated. For instance, it created a new definition of full-time workers, those putting in 30 hours or more. It also actually included two separate requirements, one to provide coverage and another that it be deemed "affordable" under the law. Violations of either one exposed employers to fines. But such complaints until now seemed to be going unheeded.
There is no coverage requirement — or penalty — for smaller businesses. Also, for businesses of any size, there is no penalty if their workers are poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid.
The delay in the employer requirement does not affect a provision in the law that requires individuals to carry health insurance starting next year or face fines. That so-called individual mandate was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the individual requirement was constitutional since the penalty would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service and amounted to a tax.
Tuesday's action could provide cover for Democratic candidates in next year's congressional elections.
The move undercuts Republican efforts to make the overhaul and the costs associated with new requirements a major issue in congressional races. Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats to the Republicans' 14, and the GOP already had begun to excoriate Senate Democrats who had voted for the health law in 2009.
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett cast the decision as part of an effort to simplify data reporting requirements.
She said since enforcing the coverage mandate depends on businesses reporting about their workers' access to insurance, the administration decided to postpone the reporting requirement, and with it, the mandate to provide coverage.
"We have and will continue to make changes as needed," Jarrett wrote in a White House blog post. "In our ongoing discussions with businesses we have heard that you need the time to get this right. We are listening."
Republicans called it a validation of their belief that the law is unworkable and should be repealed.
"The president's health care law is already raising costs and costing jobs. This announcement means even the Obama administration knows the 'train wreck' will only get worse," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in an email. "This is a clear acknowledgment that the law is unworkable, and it underscores the need to repeal the law and replace it with effective, patient-centered reforms."
___ Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Sam Hananel and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
Catholic leaders warned that the proposed law, which faces potential amendments this week and a final vote next week, was a "Trojan horse" designed to permit widespread abortion access in Ireland. But Prime Minister Enda Kenny insisted Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion would remain unaffected, and his government's Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill won overwhelming backing in a 138-24 vote.
Ireland's 1986 constitutional ban on abortion commits the government to defend the life of the unborn and the mother equally. Ireland's abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that this "ban" actually meant that terminations should be legal if doctors deem one essential to safeguard the life of the woman - including, most controversially, from her own suicide threats.
Six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of the Supreme Court judgment, citing its suicide-threat rule as open to abuse. This left Irish hospitals hesitant to provide any abortions except for the most clear-cut emergencies and spurred many pregnant women in medical or psychological crises to seek abortions in neighboring England, where the practice has been legal since 1967.
Kenny's government had been under pressure to pass a law on life-saving abortions ever since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2011 that Ireland's inaction forced women to face unnecessary medical dangers.
But the catalyst for change was Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died last year in a western Ireland hospital one week after being admitted in severe pain at the start of a miscarriage. Doctors cited Ireland's ill-defined and Catholic-influenced laws when denying her pleas for an abortion, even though her uterus had ruptured and exposed her to increased risk of blood poisoning.
By the time doctors authorized an abortion, Halappanavar had already been hospitalized for four days and the 17-week-old fetus was stillborn. She fell into a state of toxic shock, then into a coma, and died from massive organ failures three days later. Two fact-finding investigations since have found that an abortion one or two days before the fetus' death would have increased Halappanavar's chance of survival, but said the hospital was guilty of many other failures in her care.
In years past, a government that took on Catholic orthodoxy in Ireland would have feared damaging splits and electoral annihilation. But Tuesday's vote illustrates changed social mores and widespread disenchantment with Catholic leaders following two decades of revelations of the Irish church's role in protecting pedophile priests from public exposure and prosecution.
The most recent opinion poll found that 89 percent want abortions to be granted in cases where a woman's life is endangered by continued pregnancy. Some 83 percent also want abortion legalized in cases where the fetus could not survive at birth, 81 percent for cases of pregnancy caused by rape or incest, and 78 percent where a woman's health - not simply her life - was undermined by pregnancy. The government bill excludes those three scenarios. The June 13 poll in the Irish Times had an error margin of three percentage points.
Four anti-abortion lawmakers from Kenny's socially conservative Fine Gael party did vote against the bill, fewer than expected given the strong Catholic traditionalist wing in his party. They particularly opposed the bill's section authorizing abortions in cases where a panel of three doctors, including two psychiatrists, unanimously rules that a woman is likely to try to kill herself if denied one.
But Kenny, who since rising to power in 2011 has repeatedly clashed with Catholic Church attitudes, emphasized beforehand that he would tolerate no dissent and pointedly described himself as a prime minister "who happens to be Catholic" but has a public duty to separate church and state.
The four rebels were expected to be expelled from Fine Gael's voting group in parliament and, much more damagingly, be barred from seeking re-election as Fine Gael candidates. The move would not affect Kenny's commanding parliamentary majority.
Ireland's other traditional center-ground party, the opposition Fianna Fail, did not attempt to impose such discipline because it risked tearing apart the party. Thirteen Fianna Fail lawmakers voted against the bill, while only six supported it.
Kenny won strong support from the left-wing side of the house, both from his Labour Party coalition partners and opposition lawmakers including the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein. Only one of Sinn Fein's 14 lawmakers voted against the bill and he, too, faces expulsion from his voting bloc.
Hours before the vote, Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics - two thirds of the island's population - appealed to Fine Gael lawmakers to rebel against Kenny. Previously some Catholic bishops have hinted that Kenny and other Catholic lawmakers who vote for the bill should be barred from receiving Communion at Mass, a traditional method of public shaming.
"In practice, the right to life of the unborn child will no longer be treated as equal. The wording of this bill is so vague that ever wider access to abortion can be easily facilitated," Brady said in a statement. "This bill represents a legislative and political Trojan horse which heralds a much more liberal and aggressive abortion regime in Ireland."