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Fugitive Snowden's hopes of leaving Moscow airport dashed

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken from video during an intervie
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken from video during an intervie

By Lidia Kelly

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fugitive U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's hopes of leaving Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for the first time in a month on Wednesday were dashed when he failed to secure permission from Russia to leave.

An airport source said Snowden, who is wanted by the United States on espionage charges for revealing details of government intelligence programs, was handed documents by his lawyer that were expected to include a pass to leave the transit area.

But Snowden did not go through passport control, and lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who is helping him with his request for temporary asylum in Russia until he can reach a country that will shelter him, said the American did not have the pass he needed.

It was not clear whether there had been last-minute political intervention or a hitch, or whether the pass had never been in his possession.

Kucherena said he hoped Snowden's status would be resolved soon. "I must say he is of course anxious about it and I hope that this situation will be resolved in the nearest future," Kucherena said at Sheremetyevo.

"This is the first time Russia is facing such a situation, and this issue of course requires time for the immigration workers."

In Washington, the White House said it was seeking clarification of Snowden's status, the State Department made clear that allowing him to leave the airport would be "deeply disappointing" and Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the situation.

"The secretary spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He reiterated our belief ... that Mr. Snowden needs to be returned to the United States where he will have a fair trial."

Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have said they could offer sanctuary to Snowden, who arrived on June 23 from Hong Kong, where he had fled to escape capture and trial in the United States on espionage charges.

None of the three Latin American countries can be reached by a direct commercial flight from Moscow, so Snowden has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he believes he can safely reach one of them.

The United States wants him extradited to face prosecution and has revoked his passport.

Russia has refused to send him home and risks damage to its relations with the United States if it grants him temporary asylum - a process that could take three months.

Kucherena confirmed Snowden was staying somewhere in the many corridors and rooms of the transit area between the runway and passport control - an area Russia considers neutral territory - and that he had learned the Russian for "Hi", "Bye-bye" and "I'll ring you."

The 30-year-old had received calls from across Russia, with offers to give him money and a place to stay, and even a suggestion by one woman to adopt him. He said he had enough money to get by for now.

Kucherena said he had brought him fresh underwear and shirts and added that he had given him the novel "Crime and Punishment" by 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and short stories by Anton Chekhov.

President Vladimir Putin signaled last week that he did not want the dispute to derail Russia's relations with the United States, and the decision on temporary asylum could be delayed until after U.S. President Barack Obama visits Moscow for a summit in early September.

It will be Putin's first summit with Obama since the former KGB spy started a new term last year, and precedes a subsequent G20 summit in St. Petersburg.

DIPLOMATIC FALLOUT FROM LEAKS

Both Russia and the United States have signaled they want to improve ties, strained by issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to Putin's treatment of opponents and Western-funded non-governmental organizations since he started a third term in 2012.

Putin has said Snowden must stop anti-U.S. activities. Snowden has said he does not regard his activities as hostile to the United States, but Kucherena said last week that he had agreed to halt such actions.

Snowden, who has been assisted by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group, has not been seen in public since June 23, although he had a meeting at the airport with human rights groups on July 13.

He fears the United States will persuade its allies to prevent him using their airspace, or that his plane might be forced down so that he can be taken into custody and extradited.

Kucherena said earlier this week that he did not rule out Snowden seeking Russian citizenship.

There has already been diplomatic fallout from Snowden's leaks, which included information that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, although the EU is an ally.

China, Brazil and France have also voiced concern over the spying program.

U.S. relations with Latin American states have been clouded by the refusal of four U.S. allies in Europe to let a plane carrying Bolivia's president home from Moscow use their airspace because of suspicion that Snowden might be on the plane.

U.S. lawmakers were also clashing over the case as the House of Representatives debated the 2014 defense spending bill.

The House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment from Michigan Republican Justin Amash that would bar the NSA from collecting telephone call records and other data from people in the United States not specifically under investigation.

Obama opposed Amash's amendment, saying it would "hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools."

(Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Arshad Mohammed and Gabriel Debenedetti in Washington, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Cooney)

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