Russia differs with the US over Snowden

The White House says it expected the Russian government to send Snowden back to the United States.

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/HONG KONG - Washington pressed Moscow on Monday to do all in its power to expel former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden before he gets the chance to take an expected flight to Cuba to evade prosecution in the United States for espionage.

Snowden, whose exposure of secret US government surveillance raised questions about Washington's intrusion into private lives, was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday after Washington had asked the Chinese territory to arrest him.

His decision to fly to Russia is another 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 United States and lodged "strong objections" to Hong Kong and China for letting him go.

"We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr Snowden back to the US to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

The Kremlin and the Russian government did not immediately comment. But Russian officials were defiant, saying Moscow had no obligation to cooperate with Washington after it passed the so-called Magnitsky law, which can impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Russian officials accused of human rights violations.

The lawmaker suggested Russia could consider granting asylum for Snowden if he required it, but it looked as if he would prefer to go to "other countries like Venezuela or Ecuador".

A spokesman for Putin said on Sunday the Russian leader was not aware of Snowden's location or plans.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Snowden had sought asylum in his country. He declined to say what the Ecuadorean government would do, but added the request would be analysed with a "lot of responsibility".

A source at Russian airline Aeroflot said Snowden was booked on a flight scheduled to depart for Havana on Monday at 2:05 pm. Snowden is believed to be in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

Cuba said it had no information on Snowden's plans.

HAND OF BEIJING

A State Department official said Washington had told countries in the Western Hemisphere that Snowden "should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States".

US Senator Charles Schumer said Putin had probably known about and approved Snowden's flight to Russia. He predicted "serious consequences" for a US-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. He also saw "the hand of Beijing" in Hong Kong's decision to let Snowden leave.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed "grave concern" over Snowden's allegations that the United States had hacked computers in China.

ECUADOR ROLE

Snowden was aided in his escape by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organisation whose founder Julian Assange said he had helped to arrange documents from Ecuador.

Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, is a member of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their "anti-imperialist" credentials. The Quito government has been sheltering Assange at its London embassy for the past year.

US sources said Washington had revoked Snowden's passport.

US FIND HONG KONG DECISION'S DISTURBING

Snowden had been hiding in Hong Kong since leaking details about secret US surveillance programmes to news media.

US officials had been in contact with Hong Kong since June 10, and had expressed optimism about cooperation.

Snowden has been charged with theft of federal government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said it had allowed the departure of Snowden as the US request for his arrest did not comply with the law.

Snowden's revelations have become a major problem for Obama, who has found his domestic and international policy agenda side-lined as he scrambled to deflect accusations that US surveillance practices violate privacy protections and civil rights.

The latest drama coincides with the court-martial of Bradley Manning, a US soldier accused of providing reams of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which Assange began releasing on the Internet in 2010. The government says the leaks put national security and people's lives at risk.

Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of Internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.