Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew on Monday after a jetliner flew from Moscow to Cuba with an empty seat booked in his name.
The founder of the WikiLeaks secret-spilling organization, Julian Assange, insisted he couldn’t go into details about where Snowden was, but said he was safe.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, Assange said.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told The Associated Press that Snowden wasn’t on flight SU150 to Havana, which was filled with journalists trying to track him down. Two AP journalists on the flight confirmed after it arrived Monday evening in Havana that Snowden wasn’t on the plane.
A member of the Aeroflot crew spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, but would not give his name. “No special people on board,” he said, smiling. “Only journalists.”
Security around the aircraft was heavy prior to boarding, and guards tried to prevent the crowd of photographers and cameramen from taking pictures of the plane, heightening speculation that Snowden might have been escorted on board secretly.
In Havana, Cuban officers also clamped down, forcing journalists to move outside the airport building.
The Interfax news agency, which has extensive contacts with Russian security agencies, cited a source as saying Snowden could have flown out in a different plane unseen by journalists.
Others speculated Russian security agencies might want to keep Snowden in Russia for a more-thorough debriefing.
Snowden had not been seen since he arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he was in hiding for several weeks to evade U.S. justice and left to dodge efforts to extradite him.
After spending a night in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, he had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
Interfax quoted an unidentified “well- informed source” in Moscow saying that Russia received a U.S. request to extradite Snowden and responded by saying it would consider that. But the same source said Russia could not detain and extradite Snowden since he technically hadn’t crossed the Russian border.
Justice Department officials in Washington did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Experts said it was likely that the Russians were questioning Snowden, interested in what he knew about U.S. electronic espionage against Moscow.
“If Russian special services hadn’t shown interest in Snowden, they would have been utterly unprofessional,” Igor Korotchenko, a former colonel in Russia’s top military command turned security analyst, said on state Rossiya 24 television.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday it would be “deeply troubling” if Russia or Hong Kong had notice of Snowden’s plans and that would affect their relations with the United States.
The controversy over Snowden could further hurt U.S.-Russian relations, already strained over arguments about Syria and a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
The Kremlin previously has said Russia would be ready to consider Snowden’s request for asylum.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request, adding Monday that the decision “has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world.”