An aircraft believed to be carrying Edward Snowden landed in Moscow on Sunday after Hong Kong let the fugitive former U.S. security contractor leave the territory, frustrating Washington's efforts to extradite him on espionage charges.
The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Snowden was heading for a "democratic nation" which it did not name, although a source at the Russian airline Aeroflot said he would fly on within 24 hours to Cuba and then planned to go to Venezuela.
Snowden's departure from Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to China in 1997, is likely to be highly embarrassing for the administration of President Barack Obama. U.S. authorities had said only on Saturday they were optimistic Hong Kong would cooperate over Snowden, who revealed extensive U.S. government surveillance in the United States and abroad.
Moscow airport officials said the flight from Hong Kong had landed but could not immediately confirm Snowden was on board. However, a source at Aeroflot said he had booked a seat on the service.
Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency, had been hiding in Hong Kong since leaking details about the U.S. surveillance activities to news media.
In their statement announcing Snowden's departure, the Hong Kong authorities said they were seeking clarification from Washington about reports of U.S. spying on government computers in the territory.
The Obama administration has previously painted the United States as a victim of Chinese government computer hacking.
Earlier this month Obama called on his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to acknowledge the threat posed by "cyber-enabled espionage" against the United States and to investigate the problem when they met in California. Obama also met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland last week.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said it had allowed the departure of Snowden - regarded by his supporters as a whistleblower and by his critics as a criminal and perhaps even a traitor - because the U.S. request to have him arrested did not comply with the law.
In Washington, a Justice Department official said it would seek cooperation with countries Snowden may try to go to.
"It's a shocker," said Simon Young, a law professor with Hong Kong University. "I thought he was going to stay and fight it out. The U.S. government will be irate."
OBAMA AGENDA SIDELINED
Obama has found his domestic and international policy agenda sidelined as he has scrambled to deflect accusations that the surveillance violates privacy protections and civil rights. The president has maintained it has been necessary to thwart attacks on the United States, and the U.S. government filed espionage charges against Snowden on Friday.
A source at Aeroflot said Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday and then planned to go on to Venezuela. Reporters at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport said there was no immediate sign of Snowden, but Russian media suggested he may have been whisked away by car to a foreign embassy in the capital.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper said earlier his final destination might be Ecuador or Iceland.
The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website said it helped Snowden find "political asylum in a democratic country".
The group said he was accompanied by diplomats and was travelling via a safe route for the purposes of seeking asylum. Sarah Harrison, a legal researcher working for the WikiLeaks, was "accompanying Mr. Snowden in his passage to safety".
"The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person," former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of WikiLeaks and lawyer for the group's founder Julian Assange, said in a statement.
"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."
Assange has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and said last week he would not leave even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
The United States had asked Hong Kong, a special administrative region (HKSAR) of China, to send Snowden home.
"The U.S. government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden," the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
"Since the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information. ... As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."
It did not say what further information it needed.
The White House had no comment.
CHINA SAYS U.S. "BIGGEST VILLAIN"
Although Hong Kong has an independent legal system and its own extradition laws, China controls its foreign affairs. Some observers see Beijing's hand in Snowden's sudden departure.
Iceland refused on Friday to say whether it would grant asylum to Snowden, a former employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said earlier this month that Russia would consider granting Snowden asylum if he were to ask for it and pro-Kremlin lawmakers supported the idea, but there has been no indication he has done so.
The South China Morning Post earlier quoted Snowden offering new details about the United States' spy activities, including accusations of U.S. hacking of Chinese mobile telephone companies and targeting China's Tsinghua University.
Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government program known as Prism.
China's Xinhua news agency, referring to Snowden's accusations about the hacking of Chinese targets, said they were "clearly troubling signs".
It added: "They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age."
Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador are all members of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America who pride themselves on their "anti-imperialist" credentials.