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Snowden may head for Venezuela

Reports suspect Edward Snowden has landed in Moscow after Hong Kong let him leave the territory.

US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a US defence contractor during an interview with the Guardian in Hong Kong. Picture :AFP

MOSCOW - An aircraft believed to be carrying Edward Snowden landed in Moscow on Sunday after Hong Kong let the former US security contractor leave the territory, despite Washington's efforts to extradite him to face espionage charges.

The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Snowden was heading for a "democratic nation" which it did not name, although a source at the Russian airline Aeroflot said he would fly on within 24 hours to Cuba and then planned to go to Venezuela.

Moscow airport officials said the flight from Hong Kong had landed but could not immediately confirm Snowden was on board. However, a source at Aeroflot said he had booked a seat on the service.

Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency, had been hiding in Hong Kong since leaking details about US surveillance activities to news media.

A spokesman for the government of Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to China in 1997, said it had let Snowden depart because a US request to have him arrested did not comply with the law.

The United States wanted him to be extradited to face trial and is likely to be furious about his departure. In Washington, a Justice Department official said it would seek cooperation with countries Snowden may try to go to.

"It's a shocker," said Simon Young, a law professor with Hong Kong University. "I thought he was going to stay and fight it out. The US government will be irate."

A source at Aeroflot said Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday and then planned to go on to Venezuela. The South China Morning Post earlier said his final destination might be Ecuador or Iceland.

The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website said it helped Snowden find "political asylum in a democratic country".

It added in an update on Twitter that he was accompanied by diplomats and legal advisers and was travelling via a safe route for the purposes of seeking asylum.

"The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person," former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of WikiLeaks and lawyer for the group's founder Julian Assange, said in a statement.

"What is being done to Mr Snowden and to Mr Julian Assange - for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest - is an assault against the people."

Assange has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and said last week he would not leave even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.

US authorities have charged Snowden with theft of US government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person, with the latter two charges falling under the US Espionage Act.

The United States had asked Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) of China, to send Snowden home.

"The US government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden," the Hong Kong government said in a statement.

"Since the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the US government to provide additional information ... 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 did not say what further information it needed.

The White House had no comment.