Plane believed to be carrying NSA leaker Edward Snowden lands in Moscow

By Lynn Berry

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 9:39 a.m. MDT

A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Sunday, June 23, 2013.

Vincent Yu, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MOSCOW — A former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing highly classified surveillance programs has been allowed to leave for a "third country" because a U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, the territory's government said Sunday.

An Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong believed to be carrying Edward Snowden landed in Moscow. Russia's state ITAR-Tass news agency cited an unnamed Aeroflot airline official as saying Snowden was on Flight SU213, which landed on Sunday afternoon in Moscow. The report said he intended to fly to Cuba on Monday and then on to Caracas, Venezuela.

Snowden had been in hiding in Hong Kong for several weeks since he revealed information on the highly classified spy programs. The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group said it was working with him and he was bound for an unnamed "democratic nation via a safe route for the purpose of asylum."

The White House had no immediate comment about the departure, which came a day after the United States made a formal request for his extradition and gave a pointed warning to Hong Kong against delaying the process of returning him to face trial in the U.S.

The Department of Justice said only that it would "continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel."

The Hong Kong government said in a statement that Snowden left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."

It acknowledged the U.S. extradition request, but said U.S. documentation did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law." It said additional information was requested from Washington, but since the Hong Kong 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 Hong Kong had informed the U.S. of Snowden's departure. It added that it wanted more information about alleged hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies which Snowden had revealed.

The signal that Hong Kong had let Snowden go on a technicality appears to be a pragmatic decision aimed at avoiding a drawn out extradition battle. The move swiftly eliminates a geopolitical headache that could have left it facing pressure from both Washington and Beijing.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, has a high degree of autonomy and is granted rights and freedoms not seen on mainland China, but under the city's mini constitution Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs.

Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political.

Russian officials have given no indication that they have any interest in detaining Snowden or any grounds to do so. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia would be willing to consider granting asylum if Snowden were to make such a request.

Russia and the United States have no extradition treaty that would oblige Russia to hand over a U.S. citizen at Washington's request.

WikiLeaks said it was providing legal help to Snowden at his request and that he was being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from the group. Its founder, Julian Assange, who has spent a year inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning about sex crime allegations, told the Sydney Morning Herald that his organization is in a position to help because it has expertise in international asylum and extradition law.

The Cuban government had no comment on Snowden's movements or reports he might use Havana as a transit point.

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