HONG KONG/MOSCOW, (Reuters) – Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor 2 sought asylum in Ecuador yesterday after Hong Kong allowed his departure for Russia in a blow to Washington’s efforts to extradite him on espionage charges.
In a major embarrassment for U.S. President Barack Obama, an aircraft thought to have carried Snowden landed in Moscow yesterday, and Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino tweeted that Ecuador had received an asylum request from Snowden.
Obama had been trying to reset ties with Russia and build a partnership with China, but the leaders of both countries were willing to snub the American president in a month when each had held talks with Obama.
The United States pressed efforts to prevent Snowden, who exposed secret U.S. government surveillance programs, from gaining asylum. A State Department official said Washington has told countries in the Western Hemisphere that he “should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely knew and approved of Snowden’s flight to Russia and predicted “serious consequences” for a U.S.-Russian relationship already strained over Syria and human rights.
“Putin always seems almost eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States – whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden,” Schumer, a senior Senate Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union.” He also saw “the hand of Beijing” in Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave the Chinese territory despite the U.S. extradition request.
Ecuador, which has been sheltering the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, at its London embassy for the past year, once again took center stage in an international diplomatic saga over leaked U.S. government data.
Ecuador’s ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, told reporters at a Moscow airport hotel he would speak with Snowden and Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks representative.
Hours later, shortly after midnight (2000 GMT Sunday), the ambassador emerged from a business-class lounge near the hotel and refused to say whether he had met Snowden or make any other comment.
A source at Russian airline Aeroflot said Snowden was booked on a flight scheduled to depart for Havana on Monday at 2:05 p.m. (1005 GMT) from the same Moscow airport where the flight from Hong Kong arrived, Sheremetyevo.
The chief of Cuba’s International Press Center, Gustavo Machin, said he had no such information though pro-government bloggers heaped praise on Snowden and condemned U.S. spying activity.
Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador are all members of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their “anti-imperialist” credentials.
Snowden, who had worked at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, had been hiding in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to China in 1997, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to news media.
U.S. authorities had been in contact with Hong Kong since June 10 upon learning that Snowden was there, and had expressed optimism about cooperation.
A Justice Department official said that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had called his Hong Kong counterpart, Rimsky Yuen, on Wednesday to urge Hong Kong to honor the request for Snowden’s arrest.
The United States was disappointed with Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave, the official said.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
In their statement announcing Snowden’s departure, the Hong Kong authorities said they were seeking clarification from Washington about reports of U.S. spying on government computers in the territory.
The Obama administration has previously painted the United States as a victim of Chinese government computer hacking.
At a summit this month, Obama called on his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to acknowledge the threat posed by “cyber-enabled espionage” against the United States and to investigate the problem. Obama also met Putin in Northern Ireland last week.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said it had allowed the departure of Snowden, considered a whistleblower by his supporters and a criminal or even a traitor by his critics, as the U.S. request for his arrest did not comply with the law.
However, a Justice Department official said at no point in discussions through Friday did Hong Kong raise issues about the sufficiency of the U.S. arrest request.
“In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling,” the official said.
U.S. sources said Washington had revoked Snowden’s passport. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said revoking the passport of someone under a felony arrest warrant was routine and does not affect citizenship status.