Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has announced that he will apply for asylum in Russia. His application has strained already tense US-Russian relations.
The fate of fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden rose to the top of the US-Russian bilateral agenda on Friday, when Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin personally discussed the fate of the whistleblower via telephone.
A White House press release did not indicate any kind of breakthrough on Snowden's status. The release simply said that the two leaders had "discussed a range of security and bilateral issues, including the status of Mr. Edward Snowden and cooperation on counterterrorism in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics."
Snowden has been holed up in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23. The US government cancelled Snowden's passport, preventing him from travelling out of Russia.
Eyes on Latin America
On Friday, Snowden met with Russian human rights activists and officials in a closed-door meeting in the Moscow airport transit zone, where he announced his bid to seek temporary asylum in Russia. He said he ultimately wants to apply for permanent asylum in Latin America, but needs help acquiring guarantees of safe passage.
"He wants to move further on, he wants to move to Latin America - he said it quite clearly," said Tanya Lokshina, deputy head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, who was present at the meeting.
"But in order to be guaranteed safety here in Russia, the only way for him to go was to file a formal asylum here in Russia," she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously said that Snowden could stay in Russia, but only if he stopped leaking US secrets. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker, said that Snowden was prepared to meet Putin's condition.
"I asked him if he was ready to give up his political activity against the United States," said Nikonov, who attended the meeting. "He said, 'Definitely, yes, all this activity was in the past.'''
US criticizes Moscow
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday accused the Russian government of actively supporting Snowden.
"Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government's previous declarations of neutrality," Carney said.
"It's also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage US interests," he continued.
Snowden, for his part, said that he had not sought to enrich himself by leaking the existence of top secret US surveillance programs to the press.
"That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets," Snowden said.
slk/jm (Reuters, AFP, dpa)