Snowden eludes reporters in Moscow
Whistleblower fails to board flight to Havana despite being checked in
Television journalists give reports outside the Ecuador embassy in Moscow yesterday. Photograph: James Hill/The New York Times
As the Aeroflot aircraft bound for Havana rolled away from the gate at Sheremetyevo airport, the question became: was he ever even really here?
For more than 24 hours, the sprawling international airport on Moscow’s northern outskirts was the site of an intricate game of cat and mouse. The target: Edward Snowden, sought by an enraged US, which has charged him with leaking classified documents on US surveillance programmes and warned countries suspected of abetting his escape.
The action culminated at 2pm yesterday outside gate 28, where Mr Snowden was checked in for a flight to Havana, a stopover en route to Venezuela or Ecuador, where he had sought political asylum.
Dozens of journalists assembled at the window, hoping to spot the man who had eluded them for hours inside Sheremetyevo’s winding halls. Soon, they imagined, they would have Mr Snowden cornered, ready to spill his innermost thoughts as the aircraft hurtled towards Havana for a full 12 hours.
The news swept through the hall: Russian news agencies had reported that Mr Snowden and his travelling companion, Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks, had checked into seats 17A and 17C. Those seated nearby were giddy.
As the aircraft started to board, more than a dozen Aeroflot agents converged on the gate and ushered reporters away from the windows. They threatened to confiscate cameras and phones, and attempted to block the view. Some journalists said they were ready to hide their phones in their pants. Anything for a snap of Mr Snowden.
One by one, the journalists got on board – all the world’s media, and Russia’s, too. The queue dwindled to a crawl and the Aeroflot agents began to whisper: “He’s not on board.”
The gate closed. A detachable staircase pulled away from the aircraft. The Airbus began to roll backward. “He’s not on board,” said Nikolai Sokolov, an Aeroflot gate employee, his eyes wide. “I was waiting for him myself.”
About two dozen journalists settled in for the 12-hour journey to Havana – a flight on which no alcohol is served, much to the chagrin of the reporters, many of whom are not used to going half a day without a stiff drink.
And, yet again, Mr Snowden was nowhere to be found.
He was reportedly in Moscow for 21 hours but no photographs or video of him have emerged, and there are no leaks from the Federal Security Service or police, who use the website Life News to broadcast the news they want the world to see.
Moscow has made its overtures to Mr Snowden obvious, with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, repeatedly saying the Kremlin would consider an asylum request from the American, as it would any other. But the events come amid the worst Russian-US relations since the end of the cold war, with the Kremlin once again making anti-Americanism a central governing pillar.