MOSCOW – Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong and flown to Russia on a commercial flight on the first leg of a journey into political asylum, with Iceland, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador among his possible final destinations.
Two days after the United States set in motion a plan to arrest and extradite Mr Snowden, he boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
His ultimate destination remains unclear, but Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a source within Aeroflot who claimed there was a ticket in his name for a flight onward to Cuba?
A second Russian news agency, Itar-Tass, said its sources had suggested the 30-year-old former CIA employee and intelligence contractor would then fly on from Cuba to Venezuela.
Other reports also named Iceland and Ecuador as possible destinations. A spokesman for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said he was unaware of Mr Snowden’s travel plans.
The Hong Kong government said Mr Snowden had left “of his own accord” and that there was “no legal basis to restrict him from leaving Hong Kong”.
On WikiLeaks Twitter feed, Julian Assange’s operation claimed credit for helping to arrange “Mr Snowden’s political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers and safe exit from Hong Kong”, without revealing the final destination.Snowden came to Hong Kong on May 20 to begin a damaging series of leaks on NSA eavesdropping of phones and computer systems that has triggered concern from governments around the world.
President Barack Obama’s US administration insists the surveillance was legal and had foiled a number of extremist plots.
Snowden’s departure could bring US repercussions against Hong Kong but more broadly will be a shock to the Obama administration, which just on Friday had unveiled charges including theft and espionage against him in a bid to force his return from Hong Kong.
The government of Hong Kong, a “special administrative region (SAR)” under Chinese rule that has maintained its own British-derived legal system, said it had informed Washington of Snowden’s exit.
It also pressed Washington for answers “on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies”.
China’s official Xinhua news agency today attacked the US as an espionage “villain” after Snowden detailed new allegations of NSA activity targeting mainland and Hong Kong interests.
In the latest revelations published by the South China Morning Post, Snowden said the NSA was hacking Chinese mobile phone companies to gather data from millions of text messages.
He said US spies have also hacked the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing – home to one of six “network backbones” that route all of mainland China’s internet traffic – and the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which operates one of the Asia-Pacific region’s largest fibre-optic networks.
Abandoning his well-paid job as an intelligence technician in Hawaii, Snowden came to Hong Kong with a cache of documents detailing the reach of NSA operations around the world.
His claims about Pacnet followed a Guardian report in which he claimed the British government’s electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ had gained secret access to fibre-optic cables carrying global internet traffic and telephone calls, and was sharing the information with the NSA.