China and Russia rejected US accusations that they helped a former US spy agency contractor escape prosecution in the US, deepening a rift between powers whose cooperation may be essential in settling global conflicts, including the Syrian war.
Edward Snowden, charged with disclosing secret US surveillance programs, left Hong Kong for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Sunday. The US State Department said diplomats and Justice Department officials were holding discussions with Russia, suggesting they were looking for a deal to secure his return to face espionage charges.
An airport source said the 30-year-old American, who has sought asylum in Ecuador, had flown in on Sunday and had been booked on a flight to Cuba on Monday, but had not got on board.
Journalists camped out at the airport have not spotted him inside or leaving the transit area, and say a heavy security presence has been relaxed for the past 24 hours. He has not registered at a hotel in the transit zone, hotel sources say.
A receptionist at the Capsule Hotel “Air Express” said Snowden had turned up on Sunday, looked at the price list and left.
US officials admonished Beijing and Moscow on Monday for allowing Snowden to escape their clutches, but the US’ partners on the UN Security Council, already at odds with Washington over the conflict in Syria, hit back indignantly.
“The United States’ criticism of China’s central government is baseless. China absolutely cannot accept it,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said in Beijing, also dismissing US criticism of Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, for letting Snowden leave.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied suggestions Moscow had helped Snowden in any way, including by allowing him to fly into Sheremetyevo.
“He chose his itinerary on his own. We learned about it ... from the media. He has not crossed the Russian border,” he said. “We consider the attempts to accuse the Russian side of violating US laws, and practically of involvement in a plot, to be absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”
Lavrov’s insistence that Snowden had not entered Russia implies he has not left the airport transit area, used by passengers flying from one non-Russian airport to another without going through passport control or requiring an entry visa.
The transit area is Russian sovereign territory, but it could be argued that by staying there, Snowden had not formally entered the country — a move that could implicate Russian President Vladimir Putin in helping a fugitive.
Interfax news agency quoted a source “in the Russian capital” as saying Snowden could be detained to check the validity of his passport if he crossed the Russian border.
Snowden is traveling on a refugee document of passage provided by Ecuador, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was Washington’s assumption that Snowden was still in Russia.
Snowden, whose exposure of the surveillance raised questions about civil liberties in the US, flew to Moscow after being allowed to leave Hong Kong even though Washington had asked the Chinese territory to detain him.
Snowden, until recently a contractor with the US National Security Agency, had been expected to fly to Havana from Moscow on Monday and eventually go on to Ecuador, according to sources at the Russian airline Aeroflot.