At Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, Edward Snowden slipped through the net of the world’s media like the invisible man, with the fugitive whistleblower a no-show for the flight he was expected to take to Havana, Cuba.
Ecuador is apparently the American’s final destination, with the country’s foreign minister confirming that Mr Snowden has lodged an application for political asylum, but how he plans to reach the Latin American country remains a mystery.
Mr Snowden has performed an impressive disappearing act since apparently arriving in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong, where he spent several weeks in hiding, yesterday afternoon. Aeroflot confirmed that he was subsequently booked onto SU150, the 12-hour direct flight to Havana, and sources even revealed his seat number - 17A, a window seat in economy class.
As the 2pm departure time came nearer, there was a furious scramble as journalists were instructed not to film around the Havana gate at Sheremetevo Airport, and some even had footage forcibly wiped from their cameras. But despite the circus, there was no sign of the man himself. Eventually, the plane’s doors were closed, and the dozens of Russian and international journalists already on the plane realised that seat 17A was empty and they were apparently travelling to Havana without the man they had all been chasing.
Sources at the airport thereafter gave a smorgasbord of conflicting tidbits of information to Russian news agencies: Snowden had already left the country; Snowden was still in the transit hotel; Snowden was now booked onto a later Aeroflot flight to Havana.
The US has revoked his passport and Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday spoke sharply about Russia and China potentially letting the whistleblower leave their territory. “We don't know, specifically, where he may head, or what his intended destination may be,” said Mr Kerry during a visit to India. “It would be deeply troubling, obviously, if they [Russia and China] had adequate notice, and notwithstanding that, they make the decision wilfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law.” Russian officials brushed off Mr Kerry’s remarks, saying that after the recent passage of the Magnitsky Act, which bans certain Russian officials from entry to the US, Moscow is in no mood to cooperate.
But as the hours continued to pass without a confirmed sighting of Mr Snowden, some began to wonder if Mr Snowden had ever been in Russia at all. It was not so much a case of “now you see him, now you don’t”, as a case of nobody having seen him in the first place. The only suggestions that Mr Snowden had ever been in Russia at all had come from his flight booking from Hong Kong, and a Wikileaks statement, that the organisation was helping Mr Snowden on his flight to “a democratic country” via Russia.
Hong Kong authorities had said only that Mr Snowden had left for a “third country”, while passengers quizzed on disembarking the Hong Kong flight in Moscow said they had not noticed the American onboard. It seemed plausible that the whole story of the Hong Kong – Moscow – Havana route may have been a smokescreen to distract people from a different travel itinerary.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Mr Snowden was indeed at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, at least at some point. There was the visit to the airport yesterday evening by two Ecuadorian diplomatic cars, including the country’s ambassador, who said he planned to meet with Mr Snowden. Then there was the strong presence of the FSB, Russia’s security service, around the hotel inside the airport where Mr Snowden was supposedly staying.
Later, Mr Snowden’s presence in Russia was confirmed by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, who gave a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. “As we all know, he arrived in Russia,” he said, after reading out the whistleblower’s asylum application. “Ecuador has maintained a respectful and diplomatic contact with government of Russia.” He declined to answer a question about the exact current whereabouts of Mr Snowden, saying he had no information. He said that the asylum application had not yet been ruled on, but used the occasion to deliver a stinging critique of US foreign policy and the surveillance techniques which Mr Snowden uncovered. Ecuador has already given asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is hiding out in the country’s London Embassy.
“In the last few days the word treason has been mentioned,” he said. “But is it the people who have been betrayed, or certain elites?”
Mr Assange staged a conference call, in which he updated the world on what he knows of Snowden's situation. Sarah Harrison, who works for Wikileaks, is thought to be travelling with the fugitive.
Assange said that the organisation had paid Snowden's travel and living expenses since he left Hong Kong.
He said: "We are aware of where Edward Snowden is. He is in a safe place and his spirits are high. Due to the bellicose threats coming from the US administration we cannot go into further detail at this time.
"In relation to Hong Kong Mr Snowden was supplied with a refugee document of passage by the Ecuadoran government."
When asked if Snowden had been questioned by the Chinese authorities before leaving Hong Kong, Assange said: “As far as I am aware that is false.”
He added that there was no communication between Snowden and Russian officials before he departed from Hong Kong.