Whistle-blower Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow yesterday, to seek asylum in Ecuador, after abruptly leaving Hong Kong in a dramatic blow to US efforts to put him on trial for espionage.
Snowden left on a flight for the Russian capital just hours after the United States had asked Hong Kong authorities to detain the 30-year-old and shortly after the release of court documents in the US detailing some of the charges he would face there.
Two weeks after breaking cover in Hong Kong, the former CIA technician is believed to have boarded Aeroflot flight SU213 shortly after 11am, landing at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport 10 hours later. It was reported there that he would catch a connecting flight to a third country.
Russian news agency Interfax said Snowden did not leave the airport with the other passengers. It reported that he would spend the night in the airport's transit zone because he did not have a visa to enter Russia and had rented a room in a capsule hotel.
There was no immediate official confirmation of where he would head next, but Russian media reports citing sources in Aeroflot said he would fly to Cuba today and then board a flight to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden 
— Ricardo Patiño Aroca (@RicardoPatinoEC) June 23, 2013 
WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, said on its website : "He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks."
Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said from Vietnam on Twitter that his government had received a request from Snowden for asylum.
It is understood that Snowden's departure has come as a relief to the Hong Kong government, which would have faced lengthy court proceedings if Snowden had contested any extradition attempt. The departure also united the Legislative Council's pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps, who said it was the right thing for him to do.
Government sources said media reports that Hong Kong police had provided Snowden with a "safe house" were wrong and that no help or protection had been given to him.
Video: Travellers on Snowden flight land at Moscow airport.
Nevertheless, the decision to allow Snowden to leave "on his own accord" is expected to strain diplomatic relations between the city and the US after Washington warned Hong Kong not to drag its feet in such a high-profile case.
WikiLeaks confirmed it had helped Snowden find "asylum in a democratic country". Baltasar Garzon, its legal director and lawyer for its co-founder Julian Assange, said it was "interested in preserving Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person".
The Hong Kong government's announcement  that Snowden left the city "for a third country" and "through a lawful and normal channel" was its first official announcement on the case. It rejected a request from the US to issue a warrant for Snowden's arrest, because its evidence had failed to "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law".
Justice officials had asked for more evidence from the US to trigger any police action but Snowden was free to leave after this was not received.
Hong Kong also made clear its intentions to investigate the claims made by Snowden that computers in the city were compromised by agents working for the National Security Agency.
Sources said Washington had revoked Snowden's US passport. A senior US official said: "We have little idea how he left Hong Kong."
As Snowden was travelling between Hong Kong and Moscow, speculation was rife as to which country would be his ultimate destination, with Iceland also mentioned as contenders. The arrival of cars from Ecuador's diplomatic mission at the Moscow airport heightened speculation that Snowden would go to that country, which has also granted asylum to Assange.
Meanwhile, Beijing said it was "gravely concerned about the recent disclosure of US-related institutions hacking into China's internet". Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying , in a statement on the ministry's website, said: "We have already filed a diplomatic complaint with the US."
Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg