NSA leaker Edward Snowden not on flight to Cuba, whereabouts unclear
Sergei Ivanov, Associated Press
MOSCOW — Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew on 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.
The same source said that Russia can't detain and extradite Snowden since he hasn't crossed the Russian border.
Justice Department officials in Washington did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
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.
Aeroflot said earlier that Snowden had registered for the flight using his American passport, which the United States recently annulled.
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request, adding Monday that the decision "has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world." The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks also said it would help Snowden.
Ecuador has rejected the United States' previous efforts at cooperation, and has been helping Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
But Assange's comments that Snowden had applied in multiple places opened other possibilities of where he might try to go.
WikiLeaks has said it is providing legal help to Snowden at his request and that he was being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from the group.
Snowden gave documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers disclosing U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, often sweeping up information on American citizens.
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