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NSA leaker Edward Snowden flees Hong Kong, asks Ecuador for asylum

NSA leaker Edward Snowden, wanted by the US for revealing two secret surveillance programs, has according to Hong Kong left "on his own accord for a third country."

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Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked top secret documents revealing a vast surveillance program by the US government to the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald interviewed Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong and released the video on Sunday June 10, 2013. (YouTube/Screengrab)

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow on Sunday before asking embassy staff from Ecuador for asylum.

Officials in Hong Kong said that a US extradition request failed to “fully comply with the legal requirements" of the law.

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino took to Twitter to reveal more about the 30-year-old Snowden, who leaked classified information about two US surveillance programs.

"The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden," Patino said.

Patino did not say if Ecuador would honor his request. BBC reported that Snowden was apparently still in the Moscow airport after Patino's tweet.

WikiLeaks, the online whistleblower which has proven a staunch ally of Snowden, confirmed his request in a statement Sunday, adding that he had been escorted by “diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”

“Mr Snowden requested that WikiLeaks use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety,” the statement said. “Once Mr Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed.”

Ecuador's ambassador to Russia met with Snowden at the airport, BBC said.

Snowden's departure came as a surprise to Hong Kong residents, but in retrospect it seems the government must have been planning something like this since the US filed charges late last week, GlobalPost's senior Hong Kong correspondent Ben Carlson said.

"They kept a suspicious radio silence throughout the weekend, declining to comment or give a response until after they announced that Snowden was gone," Carlson said. "My inference is they told Snowden they would have to comply with the extradition and provided him with a window of opportunity in which it was still possible to flee." 

Guessing Snowden's final destination became fodder for Russian media on Sunday.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source from Aeroflot airlines who said Snowden, traveling with another person with the surname Harrison, had a ticket for a Moscow-Cuba flight. It's possible the second passenger was Sarah Harrison, an adviser to WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

Itar-Tass news agency cited an unidentified source claiming Snowden would leave Havana for Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, while other outlets reported Iceland or Ecuador as possible destinations.

A photo reportedly showing Ecuadorian diplomats meeting Snowden at the Moscow airport has also circulated on Twitter: 

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, released a statement explaining why it allowed Snowden to travel, despite the US extradition request:

"Since the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law," and because the government "has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Snowden from leaving Hong Kong," the statement said.

The decision to let Snowden leave doesn't reflect well on Hong Kong's claim to independence from Beijing, which certainly played a hand in the decision, or its rule of law, GlobalPost's Carlson reported.

In effect, the Hong Kong government decided to ignore its extradition treaty obligation with the US "when it was expedient to do so," said Carlson. 

Snowden also seems to have made a strategic decision to leak intelligence about China and Hong Kong while he was here.

The public outcry he generated may have bought him free passage out of the territory. 

WikiLeaks advertised on its Twitter account that it was involved in Snowden's travels, saying "WikiLeaks has assisted Snowden's political asylum in a more democratic country, travel papers and safe exit from Hong Hong." 

The anti-secrecy website did not say to which country Snowden would travel, but in a subsequent tweet the group released the following statement:

Legal director for WikiLeaks, Baltasar Garzon, released a statement:

"The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person. What is being done to Snowden and to Julian Assange - for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest - is an assault against the people."

Spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the Kremlin was not aware of Snowden's intentions or plans.

"I don’t know if he is coming with a visa or without a visa," he said. "We are not tracing his movements. I am not sure if he is coming. If he is coming, we will wait and see."

But Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New York Times that it's likely the Russia is aware Snowden's movements.

“The Russian authorities are quite smart to try to keep the situation at this stage and not actually allow him into the country, but just to provide him some sort of logistical support to go to a third country,” Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov told GlobalPost. 

BBC News reported earlier Snowden did not obtain a Russian visa, and was to stay in Moscow's airport before departing Monday. 

A one-page unsealed complaint against Snowden states the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee has been charged by the US with unauthorized communication of national defense information, the theft of government property, and the willful communication of classified intelligence, all of which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

As news outlets like the Guardian have suggested, Snowden has more classified information to leak, and he is reportedly traveling with four laptop computers full of data he took from the NSA.  

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/130623/nsa-leaker-edward-snowden-leaves-hong-kong