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.
“M Snowden is a free man, the sooner he selects his final destination point, the better for us and for himself,” said Putin.
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.
Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks organisation said on Tuesday that US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden may be forced to stay in Russia permanently because Washington is “bullying” possible intermediary countries.
China also on Tuesday called US claim that it had facilitated the departure of former security contractor Edward Snowden from Hong Kong “groundless”, after Washington said Beijing had chosen to release him. “It is unreasonable for the US to question Hong Kong’s handling of affairs in accordance with law, and the accusation against the Chinese central government is groundless,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing, adding: “China cannot accept that.”
Hong Kong, a special administrative region under Chinese rule that has maintained its own British-derived legal system, said the US government request to arrest him did not fully comply with Hong Kong legal requirements.
But Carney lashed out at Beijing over its purported role in the affair, saying China’s behaviour had undermined efforts to build trust with new President Xi Jinping.
“We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honour their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem,” said Carney.
Meanwhile Snowden told the South China Morning Post in a story published Tuesday that he joined contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, from which he stole secrets on NSA surveillance programs, specially to gain access to sensitive information and spill it to the press.
Prominent pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho, one of three lawyers who agreed to represent Snowden in Hong Kong, told AFP that Snowden came to Hong Kong alone and felt “helpless”.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying intelligence contractor job in Hawaii and went to Hong Kong on May 20 to begin issuing a series of leaks on the NSA gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, triggering concern from governments around the world.