By Malena Castaldi
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - South American leaders had strong words for Washington on Friday over allegations of U.S. spying in the region and defended their right to offer asylum to fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Washington wants Snowden arrested on espionage charges after he divulged extensive, secret U.S. surveillance programs. Stuck in the transit area of Moscow's international airport since late June, he is seeking asylum in various countries.
Capping two weeks of strained North-South relations over the Snowden saga, presidents from the Mercosur bloc of nations met in Montevideo. Complaints against the United States were high on the agenda, as Washington warned the international community not to help the 30-year-old Snowden get away.
"We repudiate any action aimed at undermining the authority of countries to grant and fully implement the right of asylum," Mercosur said in a statement at the close of Friday's summit.
The statement called for "solidarity with the governments of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have offered to grant asylum to Mr. Edward Snowden."
The Mercosur bloc comprises Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
"This global espionage case has shaken the conscience of the people of the United States and has upset the world," Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said.
The meeting began as reports emerged that Snowden wants to travel eventually to Latin America after seeking temporary asylum in Russia.
The U.S.-Russian relationship would be troubled if Moscow were to accept an asylum request from Snowden, the U.S. State Department said. President Barack Obama raised U.S. concerns directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Leaders throughout Latin America are also furious over reports the U.S. National Security Agency targeted most Latin American countries with spying programs that monitored Internet traffic, especially in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.
In its statement, Mercosur said, "We emphatically reject the interception of telecommunications and espionage activities in our countries, as they are a violation of human rights and citizens' right to privacy and information."
It also called for the spy scandal to be brought before the U.N. Security Council.
The espionage allegations were published by a leading Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, on Tuesday. The U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, said this week the reports gave an incorrect picture of U.S. data gathering.
"This is the world we live in; a world with new forms of colonialism," Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said in her closing remarks in Montevideo. "It is more subtle than it was two centuries ago, when they came with armies to take our silver and gold."
Colombia, Washington's closest military ally in Latin America, and Mexico, its top business partner, have also joined the chorus of governments seeking answers.
"Any act of espionage that violates human rights, above all the basic right to privacy, and undermines the sovereignty of nations, deserves to be condemned by any country that calls itself democratic," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told reporters on arrival at the meeting.
Rousseff, who was imprisoned under military rule in Brazil in the early 1970s, said the rights issue was particularly important for South American countries that lived under dictatorships for years and are now democracies.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay made her first comment on the Snowden case on Friday, saying people needed to be sure their communications were not being unduly scrutinized and calling on all countries to respect the right to seek asylum.
Snowden said in a letter posted on Friday on the Facebook page of the New-York based Human Rights Watch that the United States had been pressuring countries not to accept him. Obama has warned of serious costs to any country that takes him in.
Despite their fiery rhetoric and public offers of asylum, few in Latin America seem particularly keen to welcome Snowden and risk damaging trade and economic ties with Washington.
Cuba and Venezuela are both in a cautious rapprochement with the United States that could be jeopardized if they helped Snowden.
Still, leaders recalled that many of their own citizens sought asylum abroad during the military dictatorships of the Cold War era.
South American leaders rallied in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales last week after he said he was denied access to the airspace of Portugal, France, Italy and Spain on suspicion Snowden might be on board his plane as Morales flew home from a visit to Russia.
Bolivia is an associate member of Mercosur, and Morales attended Friday's meeting. The Mercosur statement said bloc member countries would call their ambassadors in from the four European countries for consultations.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Louise Egan; Editing by Peter Cooney)