x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Russia and China reject US criticism on leaker Snowden's escape

Russia and China yesterday rejected increasingly strident criticism from the United States of their role in Edward Snowden's flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, saying they did not illegally assist the fugitive spy agency contractor.

NEW YORK // Russia and China yesterday rejected increasingly strident criticism from the United States of their role in Edward Snowden's flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, saying they did not illegally assist the fugitive spy agency contractor.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, confirmed for the first time that Mr Snowden, who has been charged with espionage for leaking details of a vast US surveillance programme, was still in a transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

He indicated that Russia would not agree to US requests to hand over the former National Security Agency contractor whose continuing ability to elude arrest has become an embarrassment for the US president Barack Obama.

Speaking at a news conference during an official visit to Finland, Mr Putin said Mr Snowden had not crossed into Russia from the airport transit zone and that Russian security agencies "didn't work and aren't working" with Mr Snowden.

Mr Putin cited the lack of an extradition agreement between the two former Cold War rivals as the reason Moscow would not agree to the request and dismissed US accusations against Russia over the issue as "nonsense and rubbish".

Mr Putin said that Mr Snowden was free to leave and hoped he would depart Russia as quickly as possible and that his sojourn at the Moscow airport would not affect relations with Washington.

Russia has had a number of extradition requests for opponents of its government denied by US authorities in recent years and Mr Putin appeared to relish the moment.

"[WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange and Snowden consider themselves human-rights activists and say they're fighting for the spread of information," he said. "Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they'll be put in prison?"

There was confusion over Mr Snowden's exact location after he was reported to have flown from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday.

He has sought asylum in Ecuador, according to Mr Assange, who has been advising Mr Snowden.

Speaking on Monday from his own refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, Mr Assange said that Mr Snowden had been provided alternative travel documents by the South American country after his US passport was revoked on Sunday, and is in a "safe place" and "bound for Ecuador via a safe path through Russia and other states".

He said that Russian officials were notified of Mr Snowden's travel plans through Moscow before he left Hong Kong.

It was widely believed that Mr Snowden was to catch the Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, on Monday before travelling on to Ecuador but airline officials said that he was not on the flight and the Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported that he had not caught yesterday's flight either.

Earlier yesterday, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov rebutted American officials who, in unusually impolitic language on Monday, accused Russia of ignoring international law by allowing Mr Snowden to transit through its airport.

Mr Lavrov said in Moscow yesterday that Russia considered "the attempts we are seeing to accuse the Russian side of violating United States law as completely ungrounded and unacceptable, or nearly a conspiracy accompanied by threats against us".

"There are no legal grounds for this kind of behaviour from American officials toward us," he said.

Yesterday, in an attempt to avert the potential fallout - including over negotiations with Russia about its support for the Syrian government - Mr Kerry struck a conciliatory note.

Speaking in Saudi Arabia yesterday, Mr Kerry said: "We are not looking for a confrontation. We are simply requesting."

Washington also lashed out at China.

"This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive, despite a valid arrest warrant and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship," the White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.

Beijing also denied the accusations. "The Hong Kong government handled the case totally according to the law," said Hua Chunying, a ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson.

There were fears in Washington that intelligence agents in Russia and China would have had access to the reams of classified information stored on the four laptop computers that Mr Snowden is reported to have in his possession. The assurances from Mr Putin will do little to ease those concerns.

The saga has also underlined the limits of Washington's influence. While the US is Ecuador's top trading partner, it is part of a bloc of leftist governments in Latin America that routinely denounce the "imperialist" US in their political rhetoric.

tkhan@thenational.ae

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