HONG KONG/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was seeking asylum in Ecuador on Sunday after Hong Kong allowed his departure for Russia in a slap to Washington's efforts to extradite him on espionage charges.
In a major embarrassment for President Barack Obama, an aircraft thought to have carried Snowden landed in Moscow on Sunday, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said he was "bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum."
Earlier, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, visiting Vietnam, tweeted: "The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden."
It was a blow to Obama's foreign policy goals of resetting ties with Russia and building a partnership with China. 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 continued efforts to prevent Snowden from gaining asylum. It warned Western Hemisphere nations that Snowden "should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States," a State Department official said.
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 New York Democrat, told CNN's "State of the Union" program. 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 WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange at its London embassy for the past year, once again took centre stage in an international diplomatic saga over U.S. data secrecy.
Ecuador's ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, told reporters at a Moscow airport hotel he would hold talks 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. Shortly before he appeared, a cart with three plates of salmon and a Starbucks bag were rolled into the lounge.
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 said on Saturday they were optimistic Hong Kong would cooperate over Snowden.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
A source at Russian airline Aeroflot said on Sunday that 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.
HONG KONG VIEW
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 U.S. 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 familiar with the issue said Washington had revoked Snowden's U.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.
"It's a shocker," Simon Young, a law professor with Hong Kong University said. "I thought he was going to stay and fight it out. The U.S. government will be irate."
The issue has been a major problem for Obama, who has found his domestic and international policy agenda sidelined as he has scrambled to deflect accusations that U.S. surveillance practices violate privacy protections and civil rights. The president has maintained that the measures have been necessary to thwart attacks on the United States.
The White House had no comment on Sunday's developments.
WikiLeaks said Snowden was accompanied by diplomats and that Harrison, a British legal researcher working for WikiLeaks, was "accompanying Mr Snowden in his passage to safety."
"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 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, an Australian, said last week he would not leave the sanctuary of Ecuador's London embassy even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.
The latest drama coincides with the court-martial of Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier accused of providing reams of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which Assange began releasing on the Internet in 2010, and, according to some critics, put national security and people's lives at risk.
A spokesman for WikiLeaks said the decision on Ecuador was made by Snowden and that "various governments were approached."
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper earlier quoted Snowden offering new details about U.S. surveillance activities, including accusations of U.S. hacking of Chinese mobile phone firms and targeting of China's Tsinghua University.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Snowden needed to be brought back for trial. "He could have a lot, lot more that may really put people in jeopardy," she told CBS's "Face the Nation."
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 program known as Prism.
The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, said he did not know why it failed to prevent Snowden leaving Hawaii for Hong Kong with the secrets.
"We are now putting in place actions that would give us the ability to track our system administrators, what they're doing, what they're taking, a two-man rule," he told ABC's "This Week." "We've changed the passwords. But at the end of the day, we have to trust that our people are going to do the right thing."
(Additional reporting by Fayen Wong in Shanghai; Nishant Kumar in Hong Kong; Andrew Cawthorne, Mario Naranjo and Daniel Wallis in Caracas; Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, and Mark Felsenthal, Paul Eckert and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by David Stamp and David Brunnstrom and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Jackie Frank and Doina Chiacu)