Russia kept former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden at arm’s length yesterday, saying it had not been in touch with the fugitive American and had not yet received a formal request for political asylum.
Remarks by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia is weighing its options after Snowden, who is stranded at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, broke three weeks of silence and asked for refuge in Russia until he can secure safe passage to Latin America.
Washington urged Moscow to return Snowden to the US, where he is wanted on espionage charges after revealing details of secret surveillance programs, and US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Snowden’s leaks about US spy methods, including eavesdropping on global e-mail traffic, have upset Washington’s friends and foes alike. Stuck at the Moscow airport with his passport revoked, he has become an irritant in relations between the US and Russia.
“We are not in contact with Snowden,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Kyrgyzstan, where he attended a foreign ministers’ meeting.
He said he had learned of Snowden’s meeting with Russian human rights activists and public figures at the airport on Friday from the media, “just like everyone else.”
Snowden, who had previously kept out of sight since arriving in the airport’s transit zone on June 23, told the activists that he would submit his asylum request the same day.
Lavrov said that under Russian law, asylum-seekers must first make an official appeal to the Russian Federal Migration Service.
However, the director of the immigration service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, yesterday said the agency had not yet received such a request from Snowden.
Snowden, who worked at a US National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, revealed that the agency has access to vast amounts of data such as e-mails and chat rooms from companies including Facebook and Google, under a US government program called PRISM.
He fled to Hong Kong and then flew to Moscow, where he and Russian officials say he has remained in the airport transit zone. He has no visa to enter Russia.
Snowden has asked about 20 countries for asylum and received offers from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, but he said on Friday that Western states had made it “impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there”.
The three South American leaders issued a statement reaffirming “the inalienable right of every state to grant asylum,” a right which they said “must not be restricted or curbed.”