US whistleblower expected to seek asylum in Ecuador after fleeing Hong Kong

Edward Snowden arrives in Moscow and thought likely to fly to Quito today

The Ecuadorean ambassador to Russia’s car stands outside Sheremetyevo airport, near Moscow, as journalists await  the arrival of Edward Snowden yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr

The Ecuadorean ambassador to Russia’s car stands outside Sheremetyevo airport, near Moscow, as journalists await the arrival of Edward Snowden yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr


The intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden will today attempt to complete an audacious escape to the relative safety of South America after his departure from Hong Kong escalated already fraught diplomatic relations between the United States and China.

In a move that appeared to bewilder the White House, Mr Snowden was allowed to flee Hong Kong yesterday morning and head to Moscow on a commercial flight despite a formal request from the US to have the 30-year-old detained and extradited to face espionage charges for a series of leaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s spy centre, GCHQ.

Arriving in Moscow, Mr Snowden disappeared again, leaving the aircraft without being spotted, but being pursued by the Ecuadorian ambassador, Patricio Chávez, amid speculation he will fly to Quito today, possibly via Cuba.

Mr Snowden has asked for political asylum in Ecuador, the country that has also given shelter to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, at its embassy in London.

Bound for Ecuador
In a statement last night, WikiLeaks, which has been providing legal and logistical help to Mr Snowden in recent days, said: “He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks.” Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino, visiting Vietnam, tweeted: “The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. # Snowden.”

Mr Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong infuriated US politicians, while China focused on condemning Washington over his latest disclosures, which suggested the NSA had hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages.

Passport revoked
Moscow was also drawn into the controversy after it emerged that Mr Snowden’s passport had been revoked before he left Hong Kong and he did not have a visa for Russia. But Russia appeared indifferent to the uproar, with one official saying Mr Snowden was safe from the authorities as long as he remained in the transit lounge at the city’s Sheremetyevo airport.

In Washington, congressmen fulminated at the array of powers suddenly ranged against the US. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House permanent select committee on intelligence, railed at Vladimir Putin over his attitude to Mr Snowden, suggesting an ulterior motive.

“I’m sure they would love to have a little bit of coffee and some conversation with Mr Snowden,” Mr Rogers said. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer added: “The bottom line is very simple: allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways, and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States.”

Washington will also challenge Hong Kong over its decision to let Snowden flee.

In a statement, the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (HKSAR) said it could not have stopped Snowden because America’s request to detain him on a provisional warrant – filed in papers last week – did not fully comply with legal requirements.

‘No legal basis’
“As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” the statement said. Yet the admission that Mr Snowden had been allowed to leave was made five hours after he had boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, and the discovery of the oversight came two days after the papers had been formally sent.

Mr Snowden, a former NSA contractor, had previously said he would stay in Hong Kong and fight for his freedom through the courts. He had been at a safe house after giving an interview to the Guardian revealing himself as the source who leaked top-secret US documents. WikiLeaks revealed yesterday that it had been instrumental in helping him find safe passage out of Hong Kong. – (Guardian service)