The former U.S. intelligence contractor wanted by the United States for leaking classified information flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, and Russia's state news agency says he will fly on to Cuba and then Venezuela in a bid for political asylum.
Edward Snowden had been in hiding in Hong Kong since leaving the United States last month and releasing documents that indicated the extent of U.S. monitoring of telephone and Internet communications. He had said he would stay and fight extradition in Hong Kong, but left after the U.S. Justice Department unsealed espionage chages against him.
The Russian news agency, ITAR-Tass, quoted Aeroflot as saying Snowden was due to fly from Moscow to the Cuban capital Havana on Monday, before taking another flight to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. The website Wikileaks said it was supporting Snowden in his attempt to seek asylum.
Venezuela is one of Latin America's strongest critics of U.S. foreign policy, but the two countries maintain diplomatic relations. There was no immediate word from the Venezuelan government about whether it would grant asylum to Snowden.
The United States had asked Hong Kong to extradite Snowden last week, after charging him with espionage and theft of U.S. government property for providing newspapers with classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs. The government of the autonomous Chinese region said the 30-year-old was free to leave Sunday because the U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong legal requirements.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement saying it will continue to discuss the matter with Hong Kong and pursue "relevant law enforcement cooperation" with other countries where Snowden may be attempting to travel.
Anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks said its legal advisors and unnamed diplomats accompanied Snowden on his flight out of Hong Kong. It said Snowden had requested the group's legal expertise and experience to secure his safety.
WikiLeaks said it will help Snowden to find political asylum in what it called a "democratic nation."
U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Saturday Washington expected [Hong Kong authorities] to arrest and extradite Snowden on the basis of a bilateral agreement. A senior U.S. administration official warned that any failure on the part of Hong Kong to act on the U.S. request will "complicate...bilateral relations."
The former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency leaked documents showing that U.S. intelligence services have gathered data for years about patterns of telephone and Internet use at home and abroad.
Snowden told several newspapers that he exposed the programs because he believes they violate the rights of private citizens.
Senior U.S. officials have said the surveillance programs do not monitor the content of phone conversations, but look for patterns in the metadata, including information on the time, date and numbers called.
U.S. authorities also have said the programs prevented at least 50 terrorist plots worldwide since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. They also have accused Snowden of weakening their ability to foil future plots.