MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday awaited a promised request for asylum from fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden that risks straining relations with Washington after he broke three weeks of silence to announce he wanted sanctuary in the country.
Snowden on Friday dramatically summoned activists to the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport where he has been marooned without a valid passport for the last three weeks after arriving on a flight from Hong Kong.
But a full day after Snowden told the activists he would immediately request asylum from Russia, officials in Moscow said they were not aware of any such approach by the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.
Some close allies of President Vladimir Putin rushed to back the idea of according asylum but the Kremlin also appears careful not to over-aggravate already tense relations with the United States.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to distance himself from the controversy, insisting the government was “not contacting” Snowden and that he had found out about the details of his meeting with activists through the media.
“Russian laws specify a procedure for obtaining political asylum and the first step is approaching the Federal Migration Service (FMS),” he added, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The United States has told Moscow Snowden must be extradited back home to face justice over his leaking of sensational details about US surveillance activities, a demand Putin has rejected.
The White House after Snowden’s meeting warned Russia not to grant him a “propaganda platform” and scolded Moscow for allowing the fugitive to hold court with a select group of activists.
Snowden, 30, making his first publicised appearance since arriving in Moscow, told the activists he wanted to claim asylum in Russia until he could safely travel to Latin America for a permanent sanctuary.
He had said he would make the asylum request on Friday evening. But no Russian official on Saturday could confirm that such an application had been made.
The head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) Konstantin Romodanovsky said Saturday that “there is for the moment no application from E. Snowden”. If one was made, it would be examined “according to normal legal procedures”, he added.
“For the moment, we do not know anything” about an asylum application, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency.
Curiously, Snowden had last week withdrawn a request for asylum in Russia after Putin insisted he could stay only if he stopped releasing information that harmed the United States.
At the meeting with activists, Snowden vowed he did not want to harm the United States but it was not clear whether this meant he was prepared to stop leaking intelligence in order to stay in Russia.
In initial hints that Snowden’s new application may be viewed positively, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament Sergei Naryshkin and the upper house speaker Valentina Matviyenko both swiftly said Friday his request should be accepted.
Although several leftist Latin American states have indicated a readiness to host him, Snowden said at the meeting that Western governments would prevent him from travelling there.
The United States has already rebuked China for allowing Snowden to leave for Russia from Hong Kong and Moscow would risk incurring the wrath of Washington should it dare offer him asylum.
US-Russia ties are already strained over human rights and the conflict in Syria.
“We would urge the Russian government to afford human rights organisations the ability to do their work in Russia throughout Russia, not just at the Moscow transit lounge,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Providing a propaganda platform for Mr Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality,” he added.
US President Barack Obama spoke to Putin by telephone Friday on issues including the Snowden affair, the Kremlin and White House both said, but no further details were forthcoming.
The almost surreal meeting saw the group of less than a dozen people, including representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, ushered away by an airport official clutching a sign labelled “G9” to a secure area to meet the hitherto invisible fugitive.
Russian state television late Friday broadcast footage shot from a mobile phone of the meeting, which showed Snowden reading out a statement while flanked by a staffer from the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Sarah Harrison, and a female interpreter.
“We walked in and there he was: Mr Snowden waiting for us,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher at HRW in Moscow in a blog on the group’s website. “The first thing I thought was how young he looks — like a school kid.”