Moscow’s main airport swarmed with journalists from around the globe Wednesday, but the man they were looking for, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, was nowhere to be seen.
The mystery of his whereabouts only deepened a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport.
There were ordinary scenes of duty free shopping, snoozing travelers and tourists sipping coffee but no trace of America’s most famous fugitive. If Putin’s statement is true, it means that Snowden has effectively lived a life of airport limbo since his weekend flight from Hong Kong, especially with his American passport now revoked by U.S. authorities.
Adding to the uncertainty, Ecuador’s foreign minister said it could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden and the Latin American nation would take into consideration its relations with the U.S.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino compared Snowden’s case to that of Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. “It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time,” Patino told reporters during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn’t board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa shot back at critics on Wednesday, taking special aim at a Washington Post editorial that described him as “the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador” and accused him of a double standard for considering asylum for Snowden while stifling critics at home.
“The shamelessness of the century: Washington Post accuses Ecuador of double standard,” Correa said.
Correa complained that the international press “has managed to focus attention on Snowden and on those ‘wicked’ countries that ‘aid’ him, making us forget the terrible things against the U.S. people and the whole world that he denounced.”
An Associated Press reporter entered the transit area where Snowden is purportedly staying by flying from Kiev, Ukraine. It serves both connecting passengers traveling via Moscow to onward destinations and passengers departing from Moscow who have passed border and security checks.
The transit zone unites three terminals: the modern, recently built D and E, and the older, less comfortable F, which dates to the Soviet era. Boarding gates line one side of the transit and departure area, and gleaming duty-free shops, luxury clothing boutiques and souvenir stores are on the other.
Putin insisted Tuesday that Snowden has stayed in the transit zone without passing through Russian immigration and is free to travel wherever he likes. But the U.S. move to annul Snowden’s passport may have severely complicated his travel plans. Exiting the transit area would require either boarding a plane or passing through border control, both of which require a valid passport or other documentation.
Hordes of journalists armed with laptops and photo and video cameras have camped in and around the airport, looking for Snowden or anyone who may have seen or talked to him. But after talking to passengers, airport personnel, waiters and shop clerks, the press corps has discovered no sign of the leaker.
Russian news agencies, citing unidentified sources, reported that Snowden was staying at a hotel in the transit terminal, but there was no sign of him at the zone’s only hotel, Air Express. It offers several dozen capsule-style spaces that passengers can rent for a few hours to catch some sleep. Hotel staff refused to say whether Snowden was staying there or had stayed there in the past.
The departure and transit area is huge and has dozens of small rooms, some labeled “authorized personnel only,” where someone could potentially seek refuge with support from airport staff or security personnel. And security forces or police patrolling the area can easily whisk a person out of this area through back doors or corridors.
There are also a few VIP lounge areas, accessible to business-class passengers or people willing to pay $20 per hour. Snowden was not seen in those areas.
Sheremetyevo’s press service declined to comment on Snowden’s whereabouts.