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

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.

Washington could barely disguise its fury at the way Mr Snowden was hustled out of Hong Kong, despite the US having revoked his passport and demanded his detention. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration disbelieved the explanation that Hong Kong immigration officials had made a “technical” decision.

“The Hong Kong authorities were advised of the status of Mr Snowden’s travel documents in plenty of time to have prohibited his travel as appropriate,” he said. “We do not buy the suggestion that China could not have taken action.”

Speaking in Delhi, US secretary of state John Kerry expressed frustration that China had failed to detain Mr Snowden. “It would be deeply troubling, obviously, if they had adequate notice, and notwithstanding that, they make the decision wilfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law.”

Speaking in Hanoi, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said his country was considering an asylum request by Mr Snowden but did not know where he was.

Mr Patiño read out what he said was a statement from Mr Snowden, in which the whistleblower compared himself to WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, on trial in the US for “aiding the enemy”. Mr Snowden apparently said: “It is unlikely that I will have a fair trial or humane treatment before trial, and also I have the risk of life imprisonment or death.”

Details emerged about Mr Snowden’s last few days in Hong Kong. A source with knowledge of events in Hong Kong said Mr Snowden had appeared nervous when he left and unsure whether he might be heading into a trap.

“It happened very suddenly, in one or two days. Before that, he was thinking of staying and fighting the case,” the source said. “He knew that he was in trouble but he didn’t panic. He understood the consequences of what he had done, making enemies of many people, but he didn’t regret it.”

Mr Snowden is believed to have landed in Moscow shortly after 5pm on Sunday. Lacking a Russian visa, and stripped of his US passport, he was unable to leave the airport. That left the Capsule Hotel, a newly opened site in Sheremetyevo’s terminal E featuring sparse suites with room for little more than a bed. Receptionists there examined photos of Mr Snowden and said they had never seen him.

As evening began to fall, Ecuador’s ambassador to Moscow arrived at the airport. He, too, was seeking Mr Snowden; he, too, had no idea where to find him. He was still waiting in the airport, empty of its daytime rush, at 2am yesterday. It was unclear whether he had, at that point, achieved his goal. – (Guardian service)