DAKAR: US President Barack Obama sought Thursday to calm tensions surrounding fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden’s stay in a Moscow airport as signs grew that he did not possess documents allowing him to travel further.
Snowden, who is wanted by the US authorities for leaking sensational details of US surveillance to the media, is said by the Kremlin to have been in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong Sunday.
But in a mystery that has captivated the world, there has not been a single sighting of Snowden at the airport and his onward travel plans remain an enigma after he failed to board a flight on which he was booked to Havana on Monday.
The episode risks further ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Moscow, as well as Beijing, which are already strained by the conflict in Syria.
But Obama insisted the United States — which has revoked Snowden’s passport — would not scramble jets to intercept him should he fly from Russia.
“I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Obama said on a visit to Senegal, oddly giving the wrong age for the 30-year-old former National Security Agency (NSA) technician.
Obama also said he had not called the President Xi Jinping of China or Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the issue.
Putin has indicated that Moscow is keen to see the back of its unexpected visitor, while also strongly rejecting US pressure to hand over Snowden as the two countries have no extradition treaty.
“The sooner this (he flies onwards from Moscow) happens, the better,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ecuador, whose embassy in London is already giving refuge to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he faces extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault, has said it is considering an asylum request from Snowden.
But senior Ecuadorean foreign ministry official Galo Galarza denied claims by the anti-secrecy website that Quito gave Snowden a travel document after his US passport was cancelled.
“He doesn’t have a document supplied by Ecuador like a passport or a refugee card as has been mentioned,” Galarza said.
His comments appeared to reject a report by Spanish-language TV network Univision that Ecuador has issued a “safe pass” transit permit for Snowden.
But he later backpedalled, writing on Twitter that reporters had misinterpreted him and that it could take “one day, one week or, like it happened for Assange, it could take two months.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said that Caracas would “almost certainly” grant political asylum to Snowden if the fugitive US intelligence leaker applied for it.
Maduro, who like Ecuador President Rafael Correa is a leftist anti-American populist, is by coincidence expected in Moscow next week for an energy summit.
Snowden had been expected to leave Moscow on an Aeroflot flight on Monday to Havana, from where he could have caught a connection to Quito. He missed other flights on Tuesday and Thursday.
A Moscow-Havana flight is scheduled at 1005 GMT on Saturday but there have been no reports that he has a booking.
A source quoted by RIA Novosti news agency said Thursday Snowden cannot leave the transit zone for another destination as his travel documents are invalid.
“Snowden does not have valid documents. He is not flying to Cuba or anywhere else for that matter,” a source familiar with the situation told the state news agency.
The confusion over his travel documents and Snowden’s failure to leave the transit zone has raised the prospect that he could be in limbo for weeks or even months while a solution is found.
WikiLeaks has confirmed that he is being “escorted at all times” by British WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison, a blonde who is one of Assange’s closest aides.
Putin has also denied suggestions that Russia could be holding up Snowden deliberately to allow an extensive debriefing at the hands of Russian special services.
He arrived in Moscow on Sunday on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong, a special administrative region under Chinese rule, prompting anger from Washington over how the local authorities there allowed Snowden to travel.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying intelligence contractor job in Hawaii — which he himself described as “living in paradise, making a ton of money” — and went to Hong Kong on May 20.
He then began issuing a series of leaks on the NSA gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, triggering concern from governments around the world.