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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. The former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing two 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. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Snowden leaves Hong Kong, seeks asylum in Ecuador
First Published Jun 23 2013 09:17 am • Last Updated Jun 23 2013 06:14 pm

LONDON • Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing highly classified surveillance programs, is going to Ecuador to seek asylum, the South American country’s foreign minister and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Sunday.

WikiLeaks, which says it is giving Snowden legal assistance, said in a statement his asylum request will be formally processed once he arrives in Ecuador. Ricardo Patino, the country’s foreign minister, said on his Twitter account that his government has received a request for asylum from Snowden.

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"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 advisors from WikiLeaks," the anti-secrecy group said on its website.

Snowden was believed to have landed in Russia on Sunday after being allowed to leave Hong Kong.

He was on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong that arrived in Moscow shortly after 5 p.m. (1300gmt) Sunday and was booked on a flight to fly to Cuba on Monday, the Russian news agencies ITAR-Tass and Interfax reported, citing unnamed airline officials.

Snowden did not leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with the other passengers and was not seen by a crowd of journalists waiting in the arrivals lounge. Interfax reported that he was spending the night in the transit zone of the airport because he did not have a visa to enter Russia and had rented a room in a capsule hotel.

The White House had no immediate comment about the departure from Hong Kong, 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."


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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. 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.

The Obama administration on Saturday warned Hong Kong against delaying Snowden’s extradition, with White House national security adviser Tom Donilon saying in an interview with CBS News, "Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case."

Michael Ratner, Assange’s lawyer, said he didn’t know Snowden’s final destination, but said his options were not numerous.

"You have to have a country that’s going to stand up to the United States," Ratner said. "You’re not talking about a huge range of countries here."

Ratner said a country’s extradition treaty with the U.S. is "not going to be relevant" because the country he ends up going to will likely be one willing to give him a political exemption.

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