Former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s whereabouts were a mystery on Monday as Russia resisted White House pressure to send him back to the US or stop him continuing on his journey to escape US prosecution.
Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday despite Washington asking the Chinese territory to arrest him on espionage charges. Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks which is assisting Snowden, said the 30-year-old had fled to Moscow en route to Ecuador and was in good health in a “safe place” but did not say where he was now.
There are no direct flights to Ecuador from Moscow and reports that he would fly there via Cuba were put in doubt when witnesses could not see him on the plane, despite tight security before take-off.
Ecuador, which is already sheltering Assange at its London embassy, said it was considering Snowden’s request for asylum and that human rights were its main concern.
“He didn’t take the flight (to Havana),” a source at Russia’s national airline Aeroflot told Reuters. As speculation grew about where he would go next, Washington was stung by Russian defiance.
Snowden’s flight to Russia, which like China challenges US dominance of global diplomacy, is an embarrassment to President Barack Obama who has tried to “reset” ties with Moscow and build a partnership with Beijing.
The White House said it expected the Russian government to send Snowden back to the US and lodged “strong objections” to Hong Kong and China for letting him go.
US secretary of state John Kerry said during a visit to India that it would be “deeply troubling” if Moscow defied the US over Snowden, and said the fugitive “places himself above the law, having betrayed his country”.
But the Russian government ignored the appeal and President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary denied any knowledge of Snowden’s movements.
Asked if Snowden had spoken to the Russian authorities, Peskov said: “Overall, we have no information about him.”
He declined comment on the expulsion request but other Russian officials said Moscow had no obligation to cooperate with Washington, after it passed legislation to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of violating human rights.