Last updated: June 24, 2013 9:39 am

Edward Snowden applies for Ecuador asylum

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People cross a street in front of a monitor showing file footage of Edward Snowden outside a shopping mall in Hong Kong©Reuters

Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence official who has acknowledged disclosing classified documents about US government surveillance around the world, has left Hong Kong and applied for asylum in Ecuador.

In a series of events on Sunday that are likely to turn Mr Snowden’s case into an international custody battle, he is believed to have arrived in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong despite a request from Washington to arrest him.

Russian news agencies said Mr Snowden was booked on a flight on Monday from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, from where he would travel to Venezuela. However, the Ecuador government said on Sunday it had received an asylum request on behalf of Mr Snowden.

WikiLeaks on Sunday said on its website that Mr Snowden was heading for Ecuador “via a safe route” and was being escorted by “diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks”. Baltasar Garzón, the former Spanish judge who has campaigned against human rights abuses worldwide and is the legal director of WikiLeaks, said he was interested in “preserving Mr Snowden’s rights”.

Mr Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong is likely to prompt diplomatic recriminations between the US and the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities and opens a new potential diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Washington.

Despite the reports that he would only transit in Moscow, another possibility is that Mr Snowden could make a request for asylum in Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said two weeks ago that Moscow would “consider” any such asylum request. Russian news agency Itar-Tass cited a Russian diplomat saying no asylum request had been made.

The Hong Kong government said on Sunday that Mr Snowden, who has been hiding in the Chinese territory since May, had left “on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel”.

On Friday, the US Department of Justice filed charges against Mr Snowden with a Virginia court, accusing him of violating espionage laws and theft of government property.

Hong Kong said Mr Snowden had been free to leave because Washington’s extradition request was incomplete.

“As the [Hong Kong] government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” the government said.

However, a US official said hours earlier that if Hong Kong failed to act quickly “it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law”. Moreover, ABC reported that Mr Snowden’s US passport was revoked on Saturday, the day before he left Hong Kong.

The state department did not respond directly to reports that his passport had been revoked. However Jennifer Psaki, a spokeswoman for the state department, said it was “routine” that individuals facing an arrest warrant would have their passport revoked. “Persons wanted on felony charges, such as Mr Snowden, should not be allowed to proceed on any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”

The Hong Kong government also used its Sunday statement to acknowledge some of the allegations made by Mr Snowden that the US had conducted cyber surveillance operations in Hong Kong itself.

“The [Hong Kong] government has formally written to the US government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The [Hong Kong] government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong,” the statement said.

Asked about allegations from Mr Snowden that the US was hacking Chinese text messages, General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said: “We have other intelligence interests just like other nations do. That’s what you’d expect us to do.”

He added: “Our main interest: who’s collecting on us? ... Who’s coming after us? We need to know that so we can defend this nation.”

Mr Snowden had been in Hong Kong since May, from where he has leaked documents to The Guardian, The Washington Post and the South China Morning Post, which detail the extent of surveillance of US citizens conducted by the National Security Agency. The allegations have raised concerns in capitals across the globe, and been a source of embarrassment for the Obama administration.

Reporting by Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor in Washington, Charles Clover in Moscow, Andres Schipani in Bogotá, Josh Noble in Hong Kong and Kathrin Hille in Beijing

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