U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was set to fly out of Russia on Monday to seek asylum in Ecuador, as Washington demanded Moscow hand over the fugitive to face espionage charges at home.
Snowden dramatically slipped out of Hong Kong on an Aeroflot flight on Sunday and is said by Russian officials to have spent the night in a Moscow airport awaiting his onward connection.
The IT contractor, the target of a U.S. arrest warrant issued Friday after he leaked details of massive U.S. cyber-espionage programs to the media, was reportedly booked on a flight to Cuba Monday from where he could travel on to South America.
He and his accompanying party Sarah Harrison, a British national working on the WikiLeaks legal team, were checked in on the flight SU 150 to Havana due to depart on time at 1005 GMT, according to an AFP correspondent who saw the flight roster.
Russian security sources said they had no reason to arrest the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, who officials described as an ordinary "transit passenger" who had not crossed the border.
The United States urged Russia to hand over the fugitive but President Vladimir Putin's spokesman declined to comment on Snowden's transit through Moscow.
"I don't have any information on Snowden," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP.
According to Russian state media, Snowden had spent the night in the distinctly unglamorous U.S. "capsule hotel" Vozdushny Express located inside the departures area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.
He was not seen in public after the plane landed, prompting speculation he had been whisked away direct from the tarmac by Russian security.
--- 'Ecuador to make a decision' ---
Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino confirmed that the leftist Latin American country, whose embassy in London is already sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, was analyzing Snowden's asylum request.
"We will make a decision... we are analyzing it," Patino told reporters Monday in Hanoi when asked about the high-profile asylum request. "We know he is in Moscow, we're in talks with higher authorities."
Ecuador's outspoken leftist President Rafael Correa has championed the cause of Assange and his allies to the fury of the United States.
A crowd of Russian and foreign journalists, including from AFP, were at the Moscow airport departures lounge and were set to accompany Snowden on the flight to Cuba.
An airport official said that "special procedures" would be enforced for those boarding the plane. She did not explain. Some reporters complained that airport officials had threatened to take away their phones.
State television said several Ecuadorean diplomats were seen going inside the airport hotel on Sunday evening and had stayed there about 30 minutes.
The Ecuadorean ambassador Patricio Chavez stayed in the airport until after midnight, when he left in the embassy car refusing any comment to waiting reporters.
Part of the flight to Havana will pass through oceanic airspace that is controlled by New York air traffic center, a source told ITAR-TASS news agency, though it was not clear whether U.S. authorities would be able to somehow ground the plane.
The U.S. State Department has revoked Snowden's passport and asked other countries to prevent him from travelling. But a source in Russia's security agencies told Interfax that Snowden could travel without a passport.
"Ecuador authorities could supply him with refugee documents or even grant him citizenship by issuing a passport or a special note," the source said.
The New York Times quoted Assange as saying his group had arranged for Snowden to travel via a "special refugee travel document" issued by Ecuador last Monday.
--- 'We expect Russia to expel Snowden' ---
The White House on Monday urged Moscow to cooperate in bringing Snowden under U.S. custody, citing prior "intensified cooperation" between security services of the two countries, including on the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings.
"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," National Security Spokesman Caitlin Hayden said.
"We have registered our strong objections to the authorities in Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels and noted that such behavior is detrimental to US-Hong Kong and US-China bilateral relations," she added.
WikiLeaks, which had helped organize Snowden's escape from Hong Kong, blasted U.S. "bullying" on their Twitter blog.
"U.S.bullying Russia for Snowden's rendition is counter-productive. No self-respecting state would accept such unlawful demands," WikiLeaks said.
A Russian security source earlier told Interfax that there are "no grounds" to detain Snowden as a transit passenger since he is not on Interpol's wanted list. "He has not committed any crimes in Russia," the source said.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying job in Hawaii and went to Hong Kong on May 20 to begin issuing a series of leaks on the NSA gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, triggering concern from governments around the world.
Hong Kong, a special administrative region under Chinese rule that has maintained its own British-derived legal system, said it had informed Washington of Snowden's exit after determining that the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with Hong Kong legal requirements.