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Snowden at centre of US and Russian tensions

Fugitive Edward Snowden is at the centre of a political tug of war between Washington and Moscow as he awaits news of his future.

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Moscow: Moscow's main airport swarmed with journalists from around the globe but the man they were looking for, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, was nowhere to be seen.

The mystery of his whereabouts only deepened a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport.

Ecuador's foreign minister said it could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden. 

There were ordinary scenes of duty free shopping, snoozing travellers and tourists sipping coffee but no trace of America's most famous fugitive on Wednesday. If Putin's statement is true, it means that Snowden has effectively lived a life of airport limbo since his weekend flight from Hong Kong, especially with his American passport now revoked by US authorities.

People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Edward Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor facing charges of espionage, remained in hiding at a Moscow airport on Wednesday while the prospect grew of a protracted Russian-U.S wrangle over his fate.

People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Edward Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor facing charges of espionage, remained in hiding at a Moscow airport on Wednesday while the prospect grew of a protracted Russian-U.S wrangle over his fate. Photo: Reuters

Adding to the uncertainty, Ecuador's foreign minister said it could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden and the Latin American nation would take into consideration its relations with the US Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino compared Snowden's case to that of Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Patino told reporters during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Patino also denied Ecuador had provided Snowden with travel documents to fly from Hong Kong to Russia. Meanwhile, Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro says his country will almost certainly grant political asylum to Snowden if the fugitive US intelligence leaker applies for it.

People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Edward Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor facing charges of espionage, remained in hiding at a Moscow airport on Wednesday while the prospect grew of a protracted Russian-U.S wrangle over his fate.

People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Edward Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor facing charges of espionage, remained in hiding at a Moscow airport on Wednesday while the prospect grew of a protracted Russian-U.S wrangle over his fate. Photo: Reuters

Time may be running out for Snowden to get out of Russia, though. The former National Security Agency contractor may only have been given a Russian transit visa valid for three days, RIA Novosti cited a source close to the case as saying on Wednesday.

"Transit passengers who have a ticket for a connecting flight and documents necessary to enter a third country can get a Russian transit visa," the source was quoted as saying. "If Snowden has these documents, then he has the right to apply for a transit visa right in the airport, in the consular point, and could well have done that."

Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn't board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa shot back at critics on Wednesday, taking special aim at a Washington Post editorial that described him as "the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador" and accused him of a double standard for considering asylum for Snowden while stifling critics at home.

"The shamelessness of the century: Wash-ington Post accuses Ecuador of double standard," Correa said on his Twitter page.

As a contractor for the NSA, Snowden gained access to documents that he gave to the Post and the Guardian to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.

Correa complained that the international press "has managed to focus attention on Snowden and on those 'wicked' countries that 'aid' him, making us forget the terrible things against the US people and the whole world that he denounced."

An Associated Press reporter entered the transit area where Snowden is purportedly staying by flying from Kiev, Ukraine. It serves both connecting passengers travelling via Moscow to onward destinations and passengers departing from Moscow who have passed border and security checks.

The transit zone unites three terminals: the modern, recently built D and E, and the older, less comfortable F, which dates to the Soviet era. Boarding gates line one side of the transit and departure area, and gleaming duty free shops, luxury clothing boutiques and souvenir stores selling Russian Matryoshka dolls are on the other. About a dozen restaurants owned by local and foreign chains serve various tastes.

Hundreds of Russian and foreign tourists awaited flights on Wednesday, some stretched out on rows of gray chairs, others sipping hot drinks at coffee shops or watching through giant windows as silver-blue Aeroflot planes landed and took off.

An Asian girl, about 10 years old, slept peacefully on her father's lap. A middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter tried out perfume samples at a duty free store, while a woman in a green dress picked out a pair of designer sunglasses. A pilot was buying lunch at Burger King.

Putin insisted Tuesday that Snowden has stayed in the transit zone without passing through Russian immigration and is free to travel wherever he likes. But the US move to annul Snowden's passport may have severely complicated his travel plans. Exiting the transit area would require either boarding a plane or passing through border control, both of which require a valid passport or other documentation.

Hordes of journalists armed with laptops and photo and video cameras have camped in and around the airport, looking for Snowden or anyone who may have seen or talked to him. But after talking to passengers, airport personnel, waiters and shop clerks, the press corps has discovered no sign of the leaker.

Russian news agencies, citing unidentified sources, reported that Snowden was staying at a hotel in the transit terminal, but there was no sign of him at the zone's only hotel, Air Express. It offers several dozen capsule-style spaces that passengers can rent for a few hours to catch some sleep. Hotel staff refused to say whether Snowden was staying there or had stayed there in the past.

"We only saw lots of journalists, that's for sure," said Maxim, a waiter at the Shokoladnitsa diner not far from Air Express, who declined to give his last name because he wasn't allowed to talk to reporters.

The departure and transit area is huge and has dozens of small rooms, some labelled "authorised personnel only," where someone could potentially seek refuge with support from airport staff or security personnel. And security forces or police patrolling the area can easily whisk a person out of this area through back doors or corridors.

There are also a few VIP lounge areas, accessible to business-class passengers or people willing to pay $US20 per hour. Snowden was not seen in those areas.

Sheremetyevo's press service declined to comment on Snowden's whereabouts.

Hong Kong officials said they allowed Snowden to leave for Moscow because the US government got his middle name wrong in documents it submitted seeking his arrest. Hong Kong immigration records listed Snowden's middle name as Joseph, but the US government used the name James in some documents and referred to him only as Edward J. Snowden in others, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said. The US also did not provide his passport number and did not respond to requests for clarification, Yuen said.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks gave a terse update on Snowden, saying he was "well" in a post on Twitter.

WikiLeaks says one of its staffers, Sarah Harrison, is travelling with Snowden, but the statement gave no indication if the update came from her, from Snowden, or from some other source.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson did not immediately return a call and a text seeking further comment.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Assange said that he was limited in what he could say about Snowden due to security concerns. He denied reports that Snowden was spending his time at the airport being debriefed by Russian intelligence officers.

AP, MCT