Security whistleblower Edward Snowden is reportedly preparing to leave Russia as he continues to evade US authorities, seeking asylum in Ecuador and leaving the Obama administration scrambling to determine its next step in a game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse.
The former National Security Agency contractor and CIA technician fled Hong Kong and arrived in Moscow, where he planned to spend the night before boarding an Aeroflot flight to Cuba. Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino said his government received an asylum request from Snowden, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said it would help him.
The move left the US with limited options as Snowden's itinerary took him on a tour of what many see as anti-American capitals. Ecuador in particular has rejected the United States' previous efforts at co-operation, and has been helping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
Snowden helped the Guardian and the Washington Post disclose US surveillance programmes that collects vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, but often sweeping up information on American citizens. Officials have the ability to collect phone and internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.
Snowden has been in hiding for several weeks in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a high degree of autonomy from mainland China. The US formally sought Snowden's extradition from Hong Kong but was rebuffed. Hong Kong officials said the US request did not fully comply with their laws. The Justice Department rejected that claim, saying its request met all of the requirements of the extradition treaty between the US and Hong Kong.
During conversations last week, including a phone call on Wednesday between attorney general Eric Holder and Hong Kong secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen, Hong Kong officials never raised any issues regarding sufficiency of the US request, a justice spokesman said.
A State Department official said the United States was in touch through diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries that Snowden could travel through or to, reminding them that Snowden is wanted on criminal charges and reiterating Washington's position that Snowden should only be permitted to travel back to the US.
The Justice Department said it would "pursue relevant law enforcement co-operation with other countries where Mr Snowden may be attempting to travel". The White House would only say that president Barack Obama had been briefed on the developments by his national security advisers.
Russia's state ITAR-Tass news agency and Interfax cited an unnamed Aeroflot airline official as saying Snowden was on the plane that landed on Sunday afternoon in Moscow. Upon his arrival, Snowden did not leave Sheremetyevo Airport. One explanation could be that he was not allowed; a US official said Snowden's passport had been revoked, and special permission from Russian authorities would have been needed.
The Russian media report said Snowden intended to fly to Cuba later and then on to Caracas, Venezuela.