MOSCOW (AFP) – Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday left the Moscow airport where he was marooned for five weeks, after Russia granted him one year’s asylum in a move that risks infuriating Washington.
Snowden slipped out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in a cloak-and-dagger operation overseen by his Russian lawyer but unnoticed by the hordes of media trying to follow his every move.
The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor was whisked away to an undisclosed location, leaving his lawyer to reveal that Snowden had received temporary asylum in Russia just two weeks after making an application.
“Snowden has left Sheremetyevo airport. He has just been given a certificate that he has been awarded temporary asylum in Russia for one year,” lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told AFP.
A spokeswoman for Sheremetyevo confirmed he had left the airport after 2:00 pm (1000 GMT). A grainy still image published by Rossiya 24 television showed a young man with a rucksack — apparently Snowden — about to get into a car outside the airport.
Kucherena, who had held several meetings with Snowden and helped him make his asylum application on July 16, added his new place of residence would be kept secret for security reasons.
“His location is not being made public for security reasons since he is the most pursued man on the planet. He himself will decide where he will go,” Kucherena said, adding Snowden was now in a “safe place”.
Snowden, 30, is wanted on felony charges by the United States after leaking details of vast US surveillance programmes, but Russia has refused to extradite him.
There had been no indication until now that Snowden’s asylum application — which officials warned could have taken up to three months can process — would be handled so fast.
— ‘I have a girlfriend’ —
Interviewed by Rossiya 24 television, Kucherena held up a scanned copy of Snowden’s certificate granting him a year’s temporary asylum in Russia.
The name “Snowden Edward Joseph” appears in the asylum document shown on television next to the black and white photo of the bespectacled fugitive.
It was issued on July 31, valid until July 31 of 2014, and is complete with his fingerprint.
Kucherna said that Snowden would eventually emerge into public view and give interviews to the press. But he said Snowden first required an “adaptation course” after so long in the transit zone.
He said Snowden would be helped in Russia by unspecified “American friends” who would assist with the fugitive’s security.
According to Kucherena, Snowden misses his girlfriend, who is reportedly an American dancer. “When I told him what sort of girls call for him, he said: ‘But Anatoly, I have a girlfriend.'”
Snowden has been staying in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo airport north of Moscow since he flew in from Hong Kong on June 23. Until now, he had never formally crossed the Russian border.
His awarding of asylum status in Russia came two days after US soldier Bradley Manning was convicted of espionage on Tuesday for leaking US secrets to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks, which has supported Snowden, said on Twitter he was still “under the care” of WikiLeaks British staffer Sarah Harrison who flew in with him from Hong Kong and is believed to have been with him ever since.
The sudden awarding of asylum to Snowden risks a diplomatic row with the United States, which had previously described such a prospect as “deeply disappointing”.
President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov rapidly sought to limit the potential diplomatic damage, saying that the situation should not affect relations with Washington.
He also played down speculation that the dispute over Snowden could prompt President Barack Obama to cancel a planned visit for bilateral talks to Moscow in September ahead of the Saint Petersburg G20 summit.
“This situation is rather insignificant and should not influence political relations between Russia and the US,” Ushakov said.
“We know what sort of noise surrounds this (situation) in America, but we have not received any signals from the United States” regarding the cancellation of Obama’s visit to Moscow, he added.
Putin’s Kremlin had sought to distance itself from the whole affair, saying the question was in the hands of the migration authorities.
The Russian strongman has so far made no comment. As the news of Snowden’s flight from the airport broke, Putin was holding a meeting on military cooperation with the visiting president of Tajikistan.