MOSCOW/HANOI – Former U.S. IT contractor Edward Snowden prepared to fly out of Russia on Monday to seek asylum in Ecuador, as Washington demanded Moscow hand over the fugitive to face espionage charges at home.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor wanted by the U.S. for leaking details of top-secret U.S. surveillance programs, left Hong Kong aboard a commercial Aeroflot flight Sunday and is said by Russian officials to have spent the night in a Moscow airport awaiting his connection.
Russian security sources said they had no reason to arrest Snowden, who officials described as an ordinary “transit passenger” who had not crossed the border.
According to Russian state media, he spent the night in the distinctly unglamorous Vozdushny Express “capsule hotel” located inside the departures area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Snowden, the target of a U.S. arrest warrant issued Friday, was reportedly booked on a flight to Cuba on Monday from where he could travel on to South America, perhaps to Ecuador, where he is seeking asylum.
Initial reports said the man behind one of the most significant security breaches in U.S. history would fly to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, but Ecuador’s foreign minister said Snowden had asked Quito for asylum.
Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino confirmed that the leftist Latin American nation, whose embassy in London is already sheltering WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website founder Julian Assange, is looking into Snowden’s request.
“We will make a decision . . . we are analyzing it,” Patino told reporters Monday in Hanoi when asked about the high-profile asylum request.
“It (the request) has to do with freedom of expression and the security of citizens around the world,” he added.
Patino later added: “We know he is in Moscow, we’re in talks with higher authorities.”
Speaking at a news conference in London after visiting Assange last week, Patino suggested that his nation would approve such a request.
Authorities in Ecuador will weigh a petition “responsibly, just like we did so in Mr. Assange’s case,” he said during the news conference at the Ecuadoran Embassy.
Ecuador’s outspoken leftist leader, President Rafael Correa, has championed the cause of Assange and his allies to the fury of the United States.
The extradition treaty between the United States and Ecuador, signed in 1872, states that offenses of “a political character” do not warrant extradition — much like the United States’ agreement with Hong Kong.
Reporters at Sheremetyevo Airport did not see Snowden or his party in the vicinity of the hotel inside the transit zone of the terminal.
After the Hong Kong flight landed, he did not emerge into the main terminal area, where crowds of journalists quizzed his jet-lagged and bewildered fellow passengers about whether they had seen Snowden.
State television said several Ecuadoran diplomats were seen going inside the hotel and stayed there about 30 minutes Sunday evening.
The Ecuadoran ambassador to Moscow, Patricio Chavez, did not leave the airport terminal until after midnight, refusing any comment to a waiting group of reporters.Sources within Aeroflot said Sunday that Snowden would fly on to Cuba on Monday. Flight SU150 to Havana with Russian carrier Aeroflot was due to depart Sheremetyevo at 2:05 p.m. Monday.
Part of the flight to Havana will pass through oceanic airspace that is controlled by New York air traffic center, a source told ITAR-Tass news agency, though it wasn’t clear whether U.S. authorities would be able to somehow ground the plane.
The U.S. State Department had revoked Snowden’s passport and had asked other countries to prevent him from traveling. However, a source in Russia’s security agencies told Interfax that Snowden could travel without a passport once he is granted asylum.
“Ecuador authorities could supply him with refugee documents or even grant him citizenship by issuing a passport or a special note,” the source said.
Snowden’s globe-trotting escape has compounded the crisis for Washington that was unleashed by his revelations about its global spying and hacking operations — threatening to strain U.S. relations with both Moscow and Beijing.
The White House on Monday urged Moscow to cooperate in bringing Snowden into U.S. custody, citing prior “intensified cooperation” between security services of the two countries, including on the investigation into April’s Boston Marathon bombings.
“We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” National Security Agency spokesman Caitlin Hayden said.
“We have registered our strong objections to the authorities in Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels and noted that such behavior is detrimental to U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S.-China bilateral relations,” she added.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in India, confirmed that the U.S. had revoked Snowden’s passport due to “felony arrest warrants” against him.
A Russian security source earlier told Interfax that there are “no grounds” to detain Snowden as a transit passenger since he is not on Interpol’s wanted list. “He has not committed any crimes in Russia,” the source said.
The WikiLeaks website said it had helped organize Snowden’s safe exit and confirmed he was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum.”
Former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of WikiLeaks, condemned the pursuit of both Assange and Snowden as an “assault against the people.”
WikiLeaks confirmed that Snowden was accompanied by a British citizen named Sarah Harrison, whom it described as a “journalist and legal researcher” working with the WikiLeaks team.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying job in Hawaii and went to Hong Kong on May 20 to begin issuing a series of leaks on the NSA’s gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, triggering concern from governments around the world.
Hong Kong, a special administrative region under Chinese rule that has maintained its own British-derived legal system, said it had informed Washington of Snowden’s exit after determining that the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with Hong Kong legal requirements.
“As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” it said in a statement.
The U.S. Justice Department insisted officials had fulfilled all the requirements of Washington’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong and were “disappointed” by the decision to let him go.
“At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the . . . provisional arrest request,” the Justice Department said. “In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”