Travelers eat at a cafe in the "transit zone" of Sheremetyevo… (Sergei Grits, Associated…)
MOSCOW — Edward Snowden's request for political asylum in Ecuador could take up to two months to approve, the country's foreign minister said Wednesday, and he suggested that the U.S. fugitive could end his airport-layover limbo by seeking sanctuary inside the Ecuadorean Embassy here.
Snowden has not been officially admitted to Russia and remains in the Sheremetyevo airport's "transit zone."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has encouraged him to hurry up and leave. Snowden might be able to make it to the South American nation's embassy — about a 20-minute ride at night when traffic thins out — under the diplomatic protection of the ambassador's car.
"If he goes to the embassy, we will make a decision," said Ricardo Patino, Ecuador's foreign minister.
Patino, speaking during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, noted that such an arrangement would make Snowden's plight similar to that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. For more than a year, Assange has remained at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London after fleeing a sexual assault investigation in Sweden and possible extradition to the United States in connection with leaks of classified information.
"We're still studying it," Patino said of Snowden's asylum application. "It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner than that." He later tweeted: "The decision on asylum could be resolved in a day, a week or, as happened with Assange, it could take two months."
Wednesday's intrigue in Moscow, which sweltered in sticky heat and darkened as thunderstorms loomed, also included increased speculation that Snowden had left the airport area and was with Russian intelligence officials at Lubyanka, site of the Federal Security Service headquarters. From there it is a much shorter drive to the embassy, and the Ecuadorean ambassador's car has been spotted outside Lubyanka twice in the last two days.
Snowden, 30, was a contract analyst for the National Security Agency in Hawaii. He has acknowledged that he leaked data to British and U.S. newspapers about secret surveillance programs to collect domestic phone records and monitor Internet data. He then fled to Hong Kong.
The United States revoked his passport and filed a request to extradite him, but Hong Kong was still reviewing the request when Snowden flew to Moscow on Sunday.
Putin said Tuesday that Snowden was a free man who had broken no laws in Russia and that Russia had no legal obligation to extradite him to the United States.
Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States continued to seek a way to have Snowden detained and brought back, adding that U.S. officials believe he is still at the airport.
"We are asking the Russians to expel Mr. Snowden," Carney said, "and we believe there is a clear, legal basis to do so, based on his travel documents and the indictment against him."
But the upper house of Russia's parliament voted to create a special group of lawmakers to investigate whether the U.S. is violating Snowden's human rights by pursuing him on espionage charges. "Snowden is driven into the corner now," said lawmaker Ruslan Gattarov, who led the call for the investigation. He said lawmakers had already requested information about the criminal case but "we have simply been ignored."
Valentina Matviyenko, the upper house speaker, said the group would explore whether there had been U.S. "interference in [Snowden's] private life."
Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the lower house's foreign relations committee, defended Snowden, Assange and Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is being court-martialed for providing a wealth of classified U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks.
"Assange, Manning and Snowden were not spies. They gave away secret information not for money but out of convictions," Pushkov said. "They are new dissidents, fighters against the system."
In Washington, Ambassador Efrain Baus, deputy chief of mission at the Ecuadorean Embassy, said Snowden's asylum request "will be reviewed responsibly, as are the many other asylum applications that Ecuador receives each year.
"The legal basis for each individual case must be rigorously established, in accordance with our national constitution and the applicable national and international legal framework," he said. "This legal process takes human rights obligations into consideration as well."
Ecuador has asked the United States to submit "its position regarding this applicant in writing so that it can be taken into consideration as part of our thorough review process," Baus said. He also noted that "this current situation is not being provoked by Ecuador."
Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, declined to say whether the United States would provide written statements. "I'm not going to get into our diplomatic exchanges with Ecuador," he said, adding that "from our perspective, Mr. Snowden's crimes are not political. They are serious felony offenses in the United States."
Special correspondents Chris Kraul and Pablo Jaramillo Viteri in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.