MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin has described United States (US) intelligence leaker Edward Snowden as “ a free man,” confirming that he is still in a Moscow airport transit zone and rejecting calls for his extradition to the United States.
In his first comments about the chase for Snowden that has captivated world attention, Putin on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) said that the former Central Intelligence Agency’s agent’s arrival in Moscow from Hong Kong was “completely unexpected” for the Russian authorities.
The dramatic announcement ended two days of guessing over the whereabouts of the fugitive, who leaked revelations of massive US surveillance programs to the media and is now wanted by Washington.
“It is true that Mr. Snowden came to Moscow,” Putin said at a news conference while on a visit to Finland. “For us, this was completely unexpected.”
“He arrived as a transit passenger and he does not need a visa or other documents. He can buy a ticket and go wherever he pleases. He did not cross the state border, as a transit passenger he is still in the transit hall,” Putin added.
Snowden had been expected to board a flight for Cuba on Monday, reportedly on his way to seek asylum in Ecuador. But he never did and Putin appeared to confirm that he was still uncertain over his onward travel plans.
“Mr. Snowden is a free man, the sooner he selects his final destination point, the better for us and for himself,” he said.
The US has urged Russia to use all means to expel Snowden, who reportedly arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on a flight from Hong Kong on Sunday, infuriating the US, which had issued a request for his arrest in the southern Chinese city.
However, Putin insisted that Russia only extradites foreign nationals to countries with which it has a formal extradition treaty.
“We have no such agreement with the United States,” he said, calling US allegations that Russia is breaking the law “nonsense and rubbish.”
White House National Security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden later said that “while we do not have an extradition treaty with Russia, there is nonetheless a clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden.’’
Speaking in Jeddah, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for Russia to be “calm” and hand over Snowden, saying Washington was not looking for “confrontation.”
The dispute over the 30-year-old former National Security Agency (NSA) technician risks sharpening tensions between Washington and Moscow as well as Beijing at a time when they are struggling to overcome differences to end the conflict in Syria.