Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is expected to try to fly to Cuba on Monday while he waits to hear if Ecuador will grant him asylum, so far eluding Washington's efforts to extradite him on espionage charges.
In a major embarrassment for U.S. President Barack Obama, an aircraft carrying Snowden landed in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong after the Chinese territory allowed him to leave despite requests from Washington that he be arrested.
The White House said it expected the Russian government to send Snowden back to the United States. It had also lodged "strong objections" to Hong Kong and China over the decision to allow Snowden, who exposed secret U.S. government surveillance programmes, to flee.
"We expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Obama had been trying to reset ties with Russia and build a partnership with China, but the leaders of both countries were willing to snub the American president in a month when each had held talks with Obama.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, on a trip to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, said Snowden had sought asylum in his country. He declined to say what the Ecuadorean government would do, but added the request would be analysed with a "lot of responsibility". An aide said the minister would hold a news conference around 7.00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) in Hanoi.
A source at Russian airline Aeroflot said Snowden was booked on a flight scheduled to depart for Havana on Monday at 2:05 p.m. (1005 GMT). Snowden is believed to be in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Cuba said it had no information on the issue.
"HAND OF BEIJING"
A State Department official said Washington had told countries in the Western Hemisphere that Snowden "should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States".
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said Russian President Vladimir Putin likely knew and approved of Snowden's flight to Russia and predicted "serious consequences" for a U.S.-Russian relationship already strained over Syria and human rights.
"Putin always seems almost eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States - whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden," Schumer, a senior Senate Democrat, told CNN's "State of the Union". He also saw "the hand of Beijing" in Hong Kong's decision to let Snowden leave.
China Foreign Ministry, however, expressed "grave concern" over Snowden's allegations that the United States had hacked into computers in China, saying it had taken up the issue with Washington.
The statement came after Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper quoted Snowden as offering new details about U.S. surveillance activities.
These included accusations of U.S. hacking of Chinese mobile phone firms and the targeting of China's elite Tsinghua University, the alma mater of many of China's top leaders including President Xi Jinping.
The Obama administration has previously painted the United States as a victim of Chinese government computer hacking.
At a summit this month, Obama called on Xi to acknowledge the threat posed by "cyber-enabled espionage" against the United States and to investigate the problem.
Ecuador and Cuba are members of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their "anti-imperialist" credentials. Venezuela is also part of the group.
Ecuador has been sheltering the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, at its London embassy for the past year.
The New York Times quoted Assange as saying in an interview that his group had arranged for Snowden to travel on a "special refugee document" issued by Ecuador last Monday.
U.S. sources said Washington had revoked Snowden's passport. The New York Times said his passport was annulled a day before he left Hong Kong to try to thwart his escape.
WikiLeaks said Snowden was accompanied by diplomats and Sarah Harrison, a British legal researcher working for WikiLeaks.
Ecuador's ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, told reporters at a Moscow airport hotel he would speak with Snowden and Harrison.
Hours later, shortly after midnight on Sunday, the ambassador emerged from a business-class lounge near the hotel and refused to say whether he had met Snowden or make any other comment.
U.S. FINDS HONG KONG DECISION "TROUBLING"
Snowden, who had worked at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, had been hiding in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to China in 1997, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programmes to news media.
U.S. officials had been in contact with Hong Kong since June 10, and had expressed optimism about cooperation.
Snowden has been charged with theft of federal government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
In a statement announcing Snowden's departure, Hong Kong authorities said they were seeking clarification from Washington about reports of U.S. spying on government computers in the territory.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said it had allowed the departure of Snowden as the U.S. request for his arrest did not comply with the law.
A Justice Department official said at no point in discussions through Friday did Hong Kong raise issues about the sufficiency of the U.S. arrest request.
"In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling," the official said.
Adding to the mystery, a Hong Kong lawyer representing Snowden said on Monday a middle man claiming to represent the Hong Kong government told Snowden he should leave.
Albert Ho, who is also a legislator, told reporters he was approached by Snowden several days ago, and that Snowden had sought reassurances from the Hong Kong government on whether he would be able to leave the city freely, if he chose to do so.
Ho said an individual claiming to represent the Hong Kong government had subsequently indicated to Snowden that he was free to leave the city and should do so.
"This is a highly unusual action," said Ho.
Snowden's revelations have become a major problem for Obama, who has found his domestic and international policy agenda sidelined as he scrambled to deflect accusations that U.S. surveillance practices violate privacy protections and civil rights. The president has said the measures were necessary to thwart attacks on the United States.
The latest drama coincides with the court-martial of Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier accused of providing reams of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which Assange began releasing on the Internet in 2010. The government says the leaks put national security and people's lives at risk.
Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of Internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.