Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor accused of leaking classified surveillance information, has left Hong Kong for a "third country," the government in the Asian hub says.
The Associated Press reports that an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong believed to be carrying Snowden, has arrived in Moscow. Earlier, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted an unidentified official from the airline as saying Snowden would fly to Moscow and from there to Cuba on Monday, with an ultimate destination of Caracas, Venezuela.
CNN had a camera trained on the arrival area for the Aeroflot flight and there was no sign of Snowden, but The New York Times reports that other passengers on the plane said a black car pulled up on the tarmac after it landed:
"Russia Today, Russia's English-language television station, later reported that the car belonged to the embassy of Ecuador, though the Interfax news service, citing anonymous sources, reported that representatives from Venezuela met Mr. Snowden after he left the plane. No witnesses have reported seeing Mr. Snowden on the flight or in the airport in Moscow."
The U.S. on Saturday asked Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, for Snowden's extradition after federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint last week charging him with espionage, theft and conversion of government property in connection with leaks to The Guardian newspaper about secret U.S. electronic surveillance programs.
The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or HKSAR, said in a statement that Snowden departed the territory "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel." It did not say where his destination was.
Despite the extradition request, the HKSAR government said that documents from the U.S. asking for a provisional arrest warrant "did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law."
Hong Kong said it had asked the United States to provide additional information, but "has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, [so] there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong," according to the statement.
Hong Kong said it had informed the U.S. of Snowden's departure.
"We have been informed by the Hong Kong authorities Mr. Snowden has departed Hong Kong for a third country. We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel," Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said.
WikiLeaks said on its Twitter feed that it had helped Snowden leave Hong Kong.
"Mr. Snowden is currently over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors," the anti-secrecy group said.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that Snowden would go to a "democratic country," but he declined to name it:
"'Owing to WikiLeaks' own circumstances, we have developed significant expertise in international asylum and extradition law, associated diplomacy and the practicalities in these matters,' Mr Assange said.
'I have great personal sympathy for Ed Snowden's position. WikiLeaks absolutely supports his decision to blow the whistle on the mass surveillance of the world's population by the US government.'
Mr Assange, who has himself spent a year at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he has diplomatic asylum, said that he was 'thankful to the countries that have been doing the right thing in these matters. WikiLeaks hopes that Ed Snowden's rights will be protected, including his right to free communication'."
In a separate statement released by WikiLeaks, the group said that Snowden "is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks."
The group's legal director, Baltasar Garzon, said: "The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person. What is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr. Julian Assange - for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest - is an assault against the people".