Putin defies US plea to hand over Snowden

Putin's refusal to hand back Snowden risked deepening a rift with the United States.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets students of Tomsk Polytechnic University during a visit to the Siberian city of Tomsk on January 25, 2012.

MOSCOW/NAANTALI, Finland - Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday a former US spy agency contractor sought by the United States was in the transit area of a Moscow airport but ruled out handing him to Washington, dismissing US criticisms as "ravings and rubbish".

In his first public comments since Edward Snowden flew in on Sunday, Putin appeared to make light of the diplomatic uproar over the fugitive, whose flight from US authorities is becoming a growing embarrassment for President Barack Obama. Asked by a journalist about the affair, he smiled fleetingly.

"I myself would prefer not to deal with these issues. It's like shearing a piglet: there's a lot of squealing, but there's little wool," Putin told a news conference in Finland.

Russian law requires travellers who spend more than 24 hours in the airport's transit area - as Snowden has done - to get a transit visa. It was unclear whether Snowden had sought or received a transit visa.

Snowden, who worked as a systems administrator at a US National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, is facing espionage charges from the United States after leaking details about secret US surveillance programs to the news media.

Two US national security sources said intelligence agencies have detected that members of targeted militant organisations, including both Sunni and Shi'ite Islamist groups, have begun altering communications patterns, believed to be in response to the leaks on eavesdropping programs.

NSA Director Keith Alexander sought to reassure his employees that the outcry over surveillance programs leaked by Snowden was not directed at them and that agency leaders would "take the heat.

Putin's refusal to hand back Snowden risked deepening a rift with the United States that has also drawn in China and threatens relations between countries that may be essential in settling global conflicts including the Syrian war.

Republican lawmakers in Washington seized on the Snowden saga to portray Obama as an ineffective foreign leader.

Washington has gone to great lengths to try to ensure that Snowden has nowhere to go to seek refuge. But Putin said Russia had no extradition treaty with the United States and suggested that Moscow would expel Snowden only if he were a criminal.

Shortly after Putin's comments, the White House said Moscow had a "clear legal basis" to expel Snowden because of his revoked passport and the outstanding charges against him.

"Accordingly, we are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay and to build upon the strong law enforcement cooperation we have had, particularly since the Boston Marathon bombing," said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

She said the United States agreed with Putin's comment in Finland that it did not want the incident to negatively affect US-Russia relations, but members of the US Congress denounced Putin's stance and said it would have an impact.

Hours earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had cautiously questioned the Russian approach.

"It is accurate there is not an extradition treaty between Russia and the United States, but there are standards of behaviour between sovereign nations," Kerry said, in Jeddah.

Republican critics of the president said the Snowden furore was a sign of Obama's weakness and declining international stature, and Russia was taking advantage of the United States.

Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador but Quito is still considering his application and the United States is trying to persuade the governments of countries where he might go to hand him over. His plans remain unclear.

There has been speculation in the Russian media that Snowden may be talking to the FSB, the Russian security service, and could be involved in a prisoner swap. Putin said Russian security agencies "never worked with ... Snowden and are not working with him today".

The US State Department said diplomats and Justice Department officials were talking to Russia, suggesting they sought a deal to secure his return to face espionage charges.

Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow on Sunday, and the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group said he was headed for Ecuador and is travelling on a refugee document of passage provided by Ecuador.

US officials admonished Beijing and Moscow on Monday for allowing Snowden to escape their clutches.

Putin also praised WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who himself is a fugitive from US justice, and questioned whether he or Snowden should be treated as criminals.

Advisers to Assange declined to comment on the situation.