MOSCOW (AFP) – US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden declared Friday that he wanted to claim asylum in Russia until he can travel on to Latin America, in his first encounter with the outside world since becoming marooned at a Moscow airport three weeks ago.
The dramatic meeting at Sheremetyevo airport with rights groups and lawyers appeared an attempt by Snowden to find a way out of an increasingly difficult situation, as he seeks to escape US espionage charges for disclosing extensive American surveillance activities.
However, a swift warning was issued from Washington at Moscow against allowing Snowden to stay in the country and giving him the space to continue his embarrassing revelations.
“Providing a propaganda platform for Mr Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“It’s also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr Snowden to further damage US interests.”
President Barack Obama spoke by phone as previously scheduled with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Friday. No details were released but the White House had said Snowden would be discussed.
At the Moscow airport, the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor told a group of activists and lawyers from organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that he had “no regrets”.
“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 in a transcript released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
Amateur footage aired on television showed Snowden dressed in a grey shirt and looking relaxed as he read out his statement. He broke out in laughter when a disruptive airport announcement came through the intercom, forcing him to pause.
“I’ve heard this many times over the last couple of weeks,” he said pointing to the ceiling to chuckles from the audience and a smile from Sarah Harrison, a British WikiLeaks employee who has been with him throughout his stay in Russia.
Snowden, who has no official travel documents, said he will be submitting his asylum request to Russia later in the day hoping “it will be accepted favourably” before he could work out a way to travel legally to Latin America.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all indicated they would be open to offering Snowden a safe haven. Most other countries where he had applied for asylum rejected his request.
“Some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law… This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America,” Snowden said.
South American leaders at a regional meeting in Montevideo on Friday defended the right to offer asylum, pressing home their anger at claims of US spying in the region.
Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, flying home from a trip to Moscow, was diverted last week after several European nations closed their airspace to him over groundless rumours that Snowden was aboard.
The leaders of the regional bloc, Mercosur, also said they would recall their ambassadors from Spain, France, Italy and Portugal for consultation in protest over the Morales incident.
— ‘Promised not to harm the United States’ —
Moscow said last week that Snowden had withdrawn his application for asylum in Russia after Putin said it was conditional on not damaging US interests.
Participants at Friday’s meeting with Snowden said he had vowed not to harm the United States, though it was not clear if this meant he was prepared to halt leaks of new information about US surveillance activities.
“He understands that giving him political asylum will complicate ties between Russia and the US,” said lawyer Genri Reznik.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the Russian president’s condition that Snowden “first, completely stops the activities harming our American partners and US-Russian relations and second, if he asks for this himself,” Russian agencies reported.
In a possible indication that Moscow is now more favourably disposed to Snowden, the speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament and an ally of Putin, Sergei Naryshkin, told state television that Russia should grant Snowden asylum, describing him as a “defender of human rights”.
Russian ruling party lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov who was present at the meeting said Snowden “was a bit jittery” but exuded confidence and a belief he “felt he was right”.
The US embassy in Moscow used Friday’s meeting to relay a message to Snowden warning him he should face justice at home, according to Human Rights Watch senior researcher Tanya Lokshina, who said she was asked by the embassy to transmit the message.
Meanwhile the UN rights chief weighed in on Snowden case saying it shows the need to protect whistleblowers.
“Snowden’s case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring respect for the right to privacy,” said Navi Pillay in a statement.