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Putin: Snowden, still in Moscow airport, is a ‘free man’

While Edward Snowden is in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he is technically not in Russia. Vladimir Putin said today he will not extradite him.

The mystery over intelligence leaker Edward Snowden‘s wherabouts was cleared up today when Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is still holed up in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport – not technically Russian territory – where he has been since arriving on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong two days ago.

Mr. Putin, who was on a visit to Finland, told journalists that Russia will not extradite the fugitive whistleblower to the US. Mr. Snowden is “a free man” who may choose his own final destination,” he said, calling any suggestions that Russia may have played a role in Snowden’s flight from Asia, “nonsense and rubbish.”

But in a hint that US diplomatic pressure over the case may be getting to the Kremlin, Putin added that Snowden should hurry up and finalize his travel plans. 

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier insisted that Russia has no connection to Snowden – whom, he said in carefully chosen words, “has not crossed the Russian border” – but at the same time sees no reason to cooperate with the US in capturing him.

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“We are in no way involved with either Mr. Snowden, his relations with US justice, nor to his movements around the world,” Mr. Lavrov said. “He chose his itinerary on his own. We learnt about it from the media. He has not crossed the Russian border…  We consider the attempts to accuse the Russian side of violating US laws, and practically of involvement in a plot, to be absolutely groundless and unacceptable,” he added.

The US has demanded “a series of governments” to assist in apprehending Snowden and turning him over to US justice. Analysts say the US and Russia have been engaged in tense dialogue over the past three days as Washington tries to find a recipe for convincing the Kremlin, which sees few reasons to cooperate amid generally deteriorating relations with the US, that it would be in its interests to turn the fugitive whistleblower over. 

“We’re following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure that the rule of law is observed,” President Barack Obama told journalists yesterday.  

Ecuador has said it’s considering an asylum request from Snowden. But other countries that have been suggested as possible refuges for him include Iceland, Venezuela, and even Russia. Yesterday Snowden was booked on an Aeroflot flight to Cuba, but he failed to show up, leaving about 30 journalists stranded aboard a 12-hour flight to Havana.

Some analysts say he may have been delayed by Russian special services, who would have an obvious interest in interviewing him and examining the contents of the three laptop computers he reportedly carries with him.

But Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization appears to be sponsoring Snowden’s flight to a safe haven, told reporters yesterday that Snowden is “healthy and safe.” On his movements, Mr. Assange would only say: “In relation to the travel out of Hong Kong, that is a fascinating story that I’m sure will one day be told – but today is not the day.”         

And in what may be part of a coordinated US effort to bring the Russians around, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden granted a lengthy interview to the Kremlin’s English-language satellite TV network Russia Today, or RT, in which he responded cheerfully to searching questions from host Sophie Shevardnadze about US intelligence-gathering intentions and methods.

“I think Hayden’s appearance on RT, which is quite an unusual kind of event, was a sign of some kind of outreach to Russia. He was making the case that we all have the same kind of problems, should understand each other, work together,” says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the secret services and editor of the online security journal

“That’s an interesting development, but I don’t think the Kremlin would find it practical to cooperate on Snowden. This formula that ‘we have nothing to do with it’ is a fairly standard Putin way of saying ‘no’,” he adds.