MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday revealed that the US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was still in a Moscow airport transit zone, rejecting calls for his extradition to the United States.
In his first intervention over the chase for Snowden that has captivated world attention, Putin described the ex-intelligence contractor as a “free man” whose arrival in Russia was “completely unexpected” for the Russian authorities.
The dramatic announcement ended two days of guessing over the whereabouts of the fugitive Snowden who leaked revelations of US massive surveillance programmes to the media and is now wanted by the US authorities.
“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 the fugitive 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,” said Putin.
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The United States had earlier urged Moscow to use all means to expel Snowden, who reportedly arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on a flight from Hong Kong on Sunday.
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.” 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.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied earlier in the day that Moscow is in any way “involved” with the travel plans of the 30-year-old former National Security Agency (NSA) technician.
The dispute risks sharpening tensions between Washington and Moscow as well as Beijing at the very moment they are struggling to overcome differences to end the conflict in Syria.
Transit rules on the website of Sheremetyevo airport stipulate that “foreign citizens can remain in the airport up to 24 hours without a Russian visa” and must have a ticket to their next destination. However no Russian officials have provided an explanation over this issue in Snowden's case.