EU ambassadors meet to find joint stance on US spy row

BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU ambassadors were to hold talks in Brussels on Thursday to agree a common stance on allegations of US spying on European premises and embassies that have sparked outrage across the bloc.

The claims have threatened to derail long-awaited EU-US talks about a massive free trade deal, expected to boost both sides' economies by billions of dollars.

The row widened on Wednesday after Bolivia lashed out at France, Italy, Portugal and Spain for temporarily denying President Evo Morales's plane overflight rights over suspicions that intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was travelling with him.

Morales's plane, returning home from a trip to Moscow, was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in Vienna, where airport police searched the aircraft and confirmed that the fugitive American was not on board.

Morales had earlier said his country would consider giving political asylum to Snowden, who has been holed up in a Moscow airport.

France has already expressed its regret for its role in the incident, but in the Bolivian capital La Paz on Wednesday protesters were burning the French flag in the streets.

European countries have responded with alarm to revelations attributed to Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), that the US was systematically seizing vast amounts of Internet and telephone data around the world.

Reports in the Guardian and Der Spiegel in recent days have detailed widespread covert surveillance by the NSA of EU offices, including diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations in New York, as well as at the 28-member bloc's Brussels headquarters.

The allegations threatened to hurt free trade talks with Washington, although Berlin and Paris struck a note of discord on Wednesday over the issue.

France pushed for the European Union to delay negotiations, while Germany said they should go ahead as planned.

EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso eventually announced a compromise: the trade talks would open but run in tandem with working groups tasked with probing the extent of US spying, Seeking to limit the fallout from the spying scandal, US President Barack Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday to address mounting European concerns.

"The president assured the chancellor that the United States takes seriously the concerns of our European allies and partners," according to a readout of the call.

The White House said they agreed to a "high-level meeting" between US and German security officials in the coming days to address intelligence matters, and that a US-EU dialogue on intelligence collection and data protection would begin as early as July 8.

The EU says establishing a Free Trade Agreement would add about 119 billion euros annually to the EU economy, and 95 billion euros for the United States.