June 26, 2013

Ecuador could take months to decide Snowden's asylum request

By Maria Danilova and Sean Yoong / The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Moscow's main airport swarmed with journalists from around the globe Wednesday, but the man they were looking for, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, was nowhere to be seen.

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Transit passengers eat at a cafe with a TV screen with a news program showing a report on Edward Snowden, in the background, at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow Wednesday.

AP

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The mystery of his whereabouts only deepened a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport.

There were ordinary scenes of duty-free shopping, snoozing travelers and tourists sipping coffee but no trace of America's most famous fugitive. If Putin's statement is true, it means that Snowden has effectively lived a life of airport limbo since his weekend flight from Hong Kong, especially with his American passport now revoked by U.S. authorities.

Adding to the uncertainty, Ecuador's foreign minister said it could take up to two months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden and the Latin American nation would take into consideration its relations with the U.S. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino compared Snowden's case to that of Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Patino told reporters during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. However, later in the day he said on Twitter that the decision could happen "in a day, a week, or, as happened with Assange, it could take two months."

Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn't board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa shot back at critics on Wednesday, taking special aim at a Washington Post editorial that described him as "the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador" and accused him of a double standard for considering asylum for Snowden while stifling critics at home.

"The shamelessness of the century: Washington Post accuses Ecuador of double standard," Correa said on his Twitter page.

As a contractor for the NSA, Snowden gained access to documents that he gave to the Post and the Guardian to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.

Correa complained that the international press "has managed to focus attention on Snowden and on those 'wicked' countries that 'aid' him, making us forget the terrible things against the U.S. people and the whole world that he denounced."

An Associated Press reporter entered the transit area where Snowden is purportedly staying by flying from Kiev, Ukraine. It serves both connecting passengers traveling via Moscow to onward destinations and passengers departing from Moscow who have passed border and security checks.

The transit zone unites three terminals: the modern, recently built D and E, and the older, less comfortable F, which dates to the Soviet era. Boarding gates line one side of the transit and departure area, and gleaming duty-free shops, luxury clothing boutiques and souvenir stores selling Russian Matryoshka dolls are on the other. About a dozen restaurants owned by local and foreign chains serve various tastes.

Hundreds of Russian and foreign tourists awaited flights Wednesday, some stretched out on rows of gray chairs, others sipping hot drinks at coffee shops or watching through giant windows as silver-blue Aeroflot planes landed and took off.

Putin insisted Tuesday that Snowden has stayed in the transit zone without passing through Russian immigration and is free to travel wherever he likes. But the U.S. move to annul Snowden's passport may have severely complicated his travel plans. Exiting the transit area would require either boarding a plane or passing through border control, both of which require a valid passport or other documentation.

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