Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who revealed the existence of a wide-ranging US online surveillance program, has requested asylum from Ecuador, the government's foreign minister has announced.
Snowden arrived in Moscow earlier today after leaving Hong Kong, where he had sought refuge from US charges of espionage and theft, following White House confirmation that the US had begun the extradition process with the city's semi-autonomous government.
Aboard Aeroflot flight SU213, Snowden landed in the Russian capital just after 5pm local time with a companion from online activist group Wikileaks, who helped the former intelligence officer leave China.
It is believed that Snowden will tomorrow travel from Moscow to a final destination that is yet to be disclosed. However, according to Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca, he has now filed a formal bid for protection from the Latin American country.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has claimed his organisation helped Snowden leave Hong Kong in search of "political asylum in a democratic country," but did not specify his target nation.
Assange, who has himself been avoiding extradition in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over a year, told The Sydney Morning Herald: "He will be met by diplomats from the country that will be his ultimate destination. Diplomats from that country will accompany him on a further flight to his destination."
He added: "Owing to WikiLeaks' own circumstances, we have developed significant expertise in international asylum and extradition law, associated diplomacy and the practicalities in these matters. I have great personal sympathy for Ed Snowden's position."
A statement from the Hong Kong government confirmed that Snowden left the Chinese city to a third country this morning, adding: "The United States previously requested Hong Kong to issue a provisional arrest warrant for Mr Snowden.
"Because the US request failed to fully comply with the requirements under Hong Kong law, the US Department of Justice was asked to provide further information. The failure to provide sufficient information in this case meant there was no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden's departure."
In response, the US Department of Justice said they would continue to seek extradition elsewhere. "We have been informed by the Hong Kong authorities Mr Snowden has departed for a third country," a spokeswoman said. "We will continue to discuss this mater with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr Snowden may be attempting to travel."
Speculation surrounding Snowden's plans has continued throughout the day with possible final destinations being named in reports as Venezuela, Iceland, Cuba and Ecuador.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a source at the Aeroflot airline as saying there is a ticket in Snowden's name for an onward flight to Cuba that leaves tomorrow and a subsequent booking on a local flight to Caracas, Venezuela.
The source added that Snowden did not have a Russian visa and would therefore wait for his connecting flight in the airport's transit area. "In this case, he will not need to pass border control. Thus, the law enforcement agencies of our country will not be able to stop him," the source reportedly said.
However, an embassy vehicle carrying the Ecuadorian ambassador to Russia was photographed arriving at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport shortly after Snowden landed.
Speaking with The Guardian, Ambassador Patricio Chavez said he had not spoken with Snowden, did not know where he was and would not confirm whether he had been seen by Ecuadorian officials. Asked why he was there, Chavez reportedly said: "We have an interest in knowing what is happening to him."
A spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin said they were unaware of Snowden's location or plans, but US politicians have hit out at the former Cold War enemy for not already intervening on their behalf.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer told CNN: "Allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways, and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now, of course, with Snowden. I think it'll have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship."
The news comes amid new allegations by Snowden that the NSA 'prism' program was used to hack Chinese mobile phone data, which could have impacted on China's compliance with extradition proceedings.
An editorial in China’s official state news agency, which is believed to represent the government’s feelings, labelled the US a “villain” and demanded an explanation of its activities.
The Xinhua statement said: “These, along with previous allegations, are clearly troubling signs. They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber-attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”