MOSCOW (AP) — Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew Monday after a plane took off from Moscow for Cuba with an empty seat booked in his name.
In a live TV press conference, the founder of the WikiLeaks secret-spilling organization, Julian Assange, insisted he couldn’t go into details about where Snowden is, but said that he was safe.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, he said.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told The Associated Press that Snowden wasn’t on flight SU150 to Havana, which was filled with journalists trying to track him down. AP reporters on the flight couldn’t see him either.
Security around the aircraft was heavy prior to boarding and guards tried to prevent the scrum of photographers and cameramen from taking pictures of the plane, heightening the speculation that he might have been secretly escorted on board.
The Interfax news agency, which has extensive contacts with Russian security agencies, cited a source as saying that Snowden could have flown out in a different plane unseen by journalists.
Others speculated that Russian security agencies might want to keep Snowden in Russia for a more thorough debriefing.
Snowden has not been seen since he arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he had been hiding for several weeks to evade U.S. justice and left to dodge efforts to extradite him.
After spending a night in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, he had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
Interfax quoted an unidentified “well-informed source” in Moscow saying that Russia has received a U.S. request to extradite Snowden and responded by saying it will consider it. But the same source said that Russia can’t detain and extradite Snowden since he hasn’t crossed the Russian border.
Experts said it was likely that the Russians were questioning Snowden, interested in what he knew about U.S. electronic espionage against Moscow.
“If Russian special services hadn’t shown interest in Snowden, they would have been utterly unprofessional,” Igor Korotchenko, a former colonel in Russia’s top military command turned security analyst, said on state Rossiya 24 television.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it would be “deeply troubling” if Russia or Hong Kong had notice of Snowden’s plans and that it would affect their relations with the United States.
The White House said it was “not buying” that the decision by Hong Kong authorities to let Snowden leave for Russia was a technical decision. It said it was a deliberate choice to release a fugitive and that “unquestionably” damages U.S.-China relations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. assumes that Snowden was now in Russia and that the White House now expects Russian authorities to look at all the options available to them to expel Snowden to face charges in the U.S. for releasing secret surveillance information.
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