Edward Snowden, seen this month, was said by Russian President Vladimir… (The Guardian )
MOSCOW — With Edward Snowden tucked away in or near a bustling international airport here, Russia and China hit back Tuesday against the United States, denying charges that they had helped him avoid arrest under a felony warrant for espionage as he fled Hong Kong and laid over in Moscow.
"The accusations against the Chinese government are groundless," said Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
"Mr. Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better both for him and for us," Russian President Vladimir Putin declared.
The sharp retorts from Russian and Chinese leaders further strained a fracturing relationship with the United States over whether the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contract worker will be arrested and extradited to face charges that he leaked classified material that exposed extensive U.S. surveillance programs.
The defiant response prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to soften his tone from the harsh one he used Monday when he demanded that Russia immediately turn over Snowden.
"We're not looking for a confrontation. We're not ordering anybody," Kerry said during a diplomatic trip to Saudi Arabia. "We're simply requesting, under a very normal procedure, ... the transfer of somebody, just as we transferred to Russia seven people in the last two years that they requested."
Hidden from sight was Snowden, said by Putin to be staying in the "transit zone" of hotels and shops that circles the Sheremetyevo airport. It is an area that Putin and his foreign minister said was not sovereign Russian territory but rather used by foreign national travelers passing through the airport without going through Russian immigration.
Snowden, who worked for the NSA in Hawaii, initially fled to Hong Kong after the uproar over the leaks. He landed in Moscow on Sunday.
Although the U.S. revoked his passport, he now appears to be traveling with special documents that allow him some international passage and, he apparently hopes, eventual political asylum in Ecuador.
The next move seems to be up to Snowden. Putin noted that Russia has no criminal extradition treaty with the United States and would not detain Snowden. Indeed, Putin said his government had no interest in him, noting that he had broken no Russian laws. "Mr. Snowden has committed no crimes, thank God," Putin said during a trip to Finland.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov termed "ungrounded and unacceptable" the rhetoric Monday from Washington.
His comments were echoed by Hua in Beijing. She called it "unreasonable" for the United States to blame China for letting Snowden travel to Moscow.
"Washington should come clean about its record," the official New China News Agency said. "It owes ... an explanation to China and other countries it has allegedly spied on."
Hong Kong has insisted that it was seeking more information about the criminal charges, including concern about a discrepancy over Snowden's middle initial "J," before agreeing to arrest him when he suddenly flew to Moscow.
In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the administration had seen the comments by the Russian leaders.
"We agree with President Putin that we do not want this issue to negatively impact our bilateral relations," she said. "While we do not have an extradition treaty with Russia, there is nonetheless a clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden, based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him.
"Accordingly, we are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay."
A petition on the White House website calling on President Obama to pardon Snowden has more than 119,000 signatures, putting it on par with one calling on the U.S. government to grant legal status to a German family seeking asylum in the U.S. because they wish to home-school their children.
Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.