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Snowden still at airport, Ecuador asylum decision could take months

People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
People spend time in a waiting room at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Alessandra Prentice and Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A former U.S. spy agency contractor facing charges of espionage remained in hiding at a Moscow airport on Wednesday while the prospect grew of a protracted wrangle over his fate.

Ecuador, where Edward Snowden has requested asylum, said a decision could take months and asked Washington to argue its case for extradition. Russia said Snowden, whose flight is proving a growing embarrassment for President Barack Obama, was still in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport.

A leading U.S. senator sought to raise pressure on Ecuador by saying he would seek to end preferential access for its goods to the United States if it gave asylum to Snowden, while Quito denied it had given him any travel document.

Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong this month after leaking details of secret U.S. government surveillance programs, then flew on to Moscow on Sunday.

He has not been seen in the transit area - the zone between the departure gate and formal entry into the country - since his arrival, although a receptionist at a hotel in the transit zone said he looked at the prices there on Sunday, then left.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Snowden was being interviewed by Russian intelligence and called any U.S. accusations that Moscow was aiding him "ravings and rubbish".

There was no sign of Snowden registering for onward flights out of Russia on Wednesday.

"They are not flying today and not over the next three days," an Aeroflot representative at Sheremetyevo said when asked if Snowden and his legal adviser, Briton Sarah Harrison, were due to fly out. "They are not in the system."

'SERIOUS SECURITY BREACH'

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday that Snowden's leaks to news media had been a "serious security breach" that damaged U.S. national security. He repeated calls for Moscow to hand him over.

"I would hope that the Russians do the right thing here," Hagel told a Pentagon news conference, adding that Moscow evidently had not made a final decision since Snowden reportedly was still at the airport.

Putin has said he will not extradite Snowden. By declaring that he is in the transit area, Russian authorities maintain the position that he has not formally entered Russia - a step that would take the dispute to another level.

Russian law requires travelers who spend more than 24 hours in the airport's transit area - as Snowden has done - to obtain a transit visa, which in some cases is valid for three days.

It is unclear whether Snowden has sought or received a visa, and if so when it would expire. The United States said on Sunday it had revoked Snowden's passport.

Several people, mainly refugees, have been able to stay in Moscow's airports for months.

What is clear is that the longer the situation remains unresolved, the more it could fray U.S.-Russian ties.

The former Cold War-foes are already at odds over human rights and Putin's treatment of opponents and have squared off over the Syria conflict in the U.N. Security Council.

Hagel reiterated criticism of China over Snowden's departure from Hong Kong. "We're very disappointed in the Chinese government in how they've handled this. And it could have been handled a different way," he said.

The United States has no extradition treaty with Moscow, but says there is a clear legal basis for Snowden to be handed over. White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday that U.S. and Russian officials were "having conversations" on the issue, but declined to give details.

Carney told reporters Washington could understand that Snowden's decision to go to Moscow "creates issues the Russian government has to consider."

"We also believe that when it comes to Mr. Snowden, well, we agree with President Putin that we don't want the situation to harm our relations," Carney said while travelling with Obama to Africa.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Putin's view that Snowden should choose a destination and fly out as soon as possible, state-run Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Putin, a former KGB officer, may feel little sympathy for someone who has broken the secrecy code. He has suggested the surveillance methods revealed by Snowden were justified in fighting terror, if carried out lawfully.

RUSSIA APPEARS IN NO HURRY

But Snowden could be a useful propaganda tool for Moscow, which accuses the United States of violating rights and freedoms it vocally urges other countries, including Russia, to protect.

Despite Putin and Lavrov's remarks, Moscow is clearly not in a hurry to dispatch Snowden from its territory. Ecuador, which has not in the past flinched from taking on Western powers, is similarly not rushing to banish the uncertainty plaguing U.S. authorities.

On Wednesday, Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that accepting Snowden "would severely jeopardize" preferential trade access the United States provides to Ecuador under two programs currently up for renewal.

"Our government will not reward countries for bad behavior," he said, while also calling on Russia to stop sheltering Snowden.

Ecuador exported $5.4 billion of oil, $166 million of cut flowers, $122 million of fruit and vegetables and $80 million of tuna to the United States under one of the trade programs.

While Ecuador could find other markets for its oil, ending the benefits could badly hurt the cut flower industry, which employs more than 100,000 workers, many of them women.

The logical route for Snowden to take out of Moscow - and one for which he at one point had a reservation - would be an Aeroflot flight to Havana and a connecting flight to Ecuador.

But Ecuador's foreign minister indicated a decision on Snowden's asylum request could take two months.

"It took us two months to make a decision on Assange so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Foreign Minister Richard Patino said in Kuala Lumpur, referring to the founder of anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, Julian Assange.

He added that Ecuador would consider giving Snowden protection before that if he went to Ecuador's embassy - but Russian officials say Snowden does not have a visa to enter Russia.

Ecuador's acting foreign minister, standing in for Patino in Quito, was quoted by local media as saying on Wednesday that Ecuador had not given a temporary travel document to Snowden, contradicting Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Assange told reporters on Monday that Ecuador had supplied Snowden with a "refugee document of passage".

"That's not true. There is no passport, no document that has been given (to Snowden) by any Ecuadorean consulate," the acting minister, Galo Galarza, said in comments posted on the website of Ecuador's Teleamazonas, a private television station.

Snowden, who worked as a systems administrator at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, was the source of disclosures about U.S. government surveillance that included details about a program that collected emails, chat logs and other types of data from companies such as Google Inc, Facebook Inc, Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc.

He has divided opinion in the United States, where many have been outraged by the extent of government snooping.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed that Americans were still more likely to view Snowden as a "patriot" rather than a "traitor," but also that public support for him had fallen during the past week.

More than a quarter of respondents said Snowden should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, up 3 percentage points from a week earlier. Just over one-third said he should not be prosecuted, down from a peak of more than 40 percent last week.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, and Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle, Gabriel Debenedetti and Doug Palmer in Washington, and Brian Ellsworth in Quito; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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