The fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden embarked on a new stage in his life on the run on Sunday, fleeing Hong Kong by plane to Russia and lodging a request for asylum in Ecuador.
The former US security contractor was last night in an airport hotel in Moscow, but was expected to travel on soon, after Ecuador's foreign ministry confirmed that it had received an asylum request. His route to Quito may take him through communist Cuba, which would be unlikely to heed any American requests for assistance.
Rafael Correa, Ecuador's Left-wing, anti-American president, made a similar asylum offer last August to Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing organisation. Mr Assange has spent the past year under refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London, where he has claimed diplomatic immunity against extradition to Sweden on sex charges.
Mr Snowden, 30, who leaked details of classified surveillance programmes to the media, slipped out of Hong Kong on an Aeroflot flight yesterday morning, two days after he was charged with two counts of espionage and one of theft by the US authorities. He was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, a British researcher who has worked with Mr Assange. Shortly after he touched down at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, WikiLeaks announced that its staff had helped Mr Snowden in arranging safe passage to Ecuador. "Mr Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed -evidence of a global surveillance regime conducted by US and UK intelligence agencies, has left Hong Kong legally," WikiLeaks said. "He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the -purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks." Fellow passengers on flight SU213 from Hong Kong to Moscow said that when the plane touched down, Mr Snowden climbed into a BMW with diplomatic number plates, which drove on to the tarmac.
Cars from the Ecuadorean embassy pulled up outside the terminal building, accompanied by Russian government cars with darkened windows and flashing lights.
Mr Snowden's departure from Hong Kong sparked a row with the American authorities over why he was allowed to leave while the extradition request was still in process. The Hong Kong government said that the original US request had failed to "fully comply" with local law, and that the US Department of Justice had not provided the further information that it had asked for. A statement added: "The failure to provide sufficient information in this case meant there was no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden's departure." However, Washington insisted that the request "met the requirements of the agreement," which normally only requires for the country requesting the extradition to provide basic details of the allegations.
The US government said it had already cancelled Mr Snowden's passport, raising questions as to how he had been able to exit Hong Kong. Some believe that Hong Kong let him go to avoid a drawn-out and controversial extradition battle. A State Department spokeswoman said that the passport had been revoked as is standard procedure. "Persons wanted on felony charges, such as Mr Snowden, should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States," she said.
American officials expressed private and public fury with both Russia and Hong Kong. Both Democrats and Republicans attacked Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, for allowing Mr Snowden to land in Moscow, even though it was not clear what legal grounds Russia would have had to stop him. Charles Schumer, a senior Democrat senator, accused the Russian president of "aiding and abetting Snowden's escape".
A Justice Department spokesman said the US would "pursue relevant law enforcement co-operation" with other countries where Mr Snowden may try to go. Last night there was speculation that Russian intelligence officials were seeking to press Mr Snowden for information before his departure. He faces an uncertain future as a fugitive, celebrated by some as a champion of liberties, and denounced by others as a man who betrayed his country.
Among his explosive claims has been that the UK Government Communications Headquarters has carried out vast amounts of internet surveillance. In an interview with The Guardian, he described the Cheltenham-based agency as "worse than the US". Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Tory chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, has asked for a written report from GCHQ about the latest allegations.