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Why would Snowden head for Ecuador?

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 24, 2013
  • NEW: Political "hue and cry" doesn't help chances for extradition, lawyer says
  • CNN analyst: "He's pushing the envelope of how many places he can try to go"
  • Ecuador's foreign minister says he's requested asylum there
  • Snowden had been hiding out in Hong Kong, but WikiLeaks helped him leave

(CNN) -- The man who has admitted to leaking classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs appears to have his sights set on Ecuador.

Edward Snowden, who is charged with espionage in the United States, has asked for asylum in the South American country, its foreign minister said.

WikiLeaks, which facilitates the publication of classified information and has said it's helping Snowden's asylum bid, said Sunday that Snowden was heading to Ecuador "via a safe route."

"Once Mr. Snowden arrives in Ecuador, his request will be formally processed," WikiLeaks said in a statement on its website.

CNN spotted a car with diplomatic plates and an Ecuadorian flag at Moscow's airport on Sunday.

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And the Reuters news agency reported that Ecuador's ambassador to Russia said he would be meeting with Snowden at a Moscow airport hotel.

As word spread that Snowden had left his Hong Kong hideout and was headed to Russia on Sunday, the former NSA contractor became the center of a global guessing game.

Media reports speculated that he could be traveling to Ecuador, Venezuela or Cuba -- all countries where leaders have sharply criticized what they call the U.S. government's imperialist approach.

Why would Ecuador win out? Is that country likely to grant Snowden asylum?

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a left-leaning economist, has railed against the United States in concert with allies in Latin America.

Lawmakers say tenuous ties shaken further as Snowden lands in Russia

And it's been nearly a year since the South American country approved a similar asylum request from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is now holed up inside Ecuador's embassy in London.

He faces arrest in Britain and possible extradition to Sweden if he leaves the embassy.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino has called on British authorities to reconsider Assange's case, describing it as "politically motivated."

On Sunday, he said that authorities would review Snowden's petition and give him a reply as soon as possible, Ecuador's state-run Andes news agency reported.

Embassy life like 'a space station,' Assange says

The foreign minister is scheduled to speak at a news conference Monday from Vietnam, where he is traveling on a state visit.

On Sunday, a senior administration official said the United States was asking Ecuador, Cuba and Venezuela not to let Snowden in or expel him if he enters their countries. A source familiar with the matter said the U.S. government had revoked Snowden's passport.

There appear to be no direct flights from Moscow to Ecuador, and it's unclear whether Snowden could have a connecting flight in another country.

Tom Fuentes, CNN law enforcement analyst and a former assistant director of the FBI, pointed out that Ecuador hasn't granted Snowden asylum yet.

WikiLeaks' Assange urges support for Snowden, slams Obama

"Right now who knows where he's going to ultimately end up, or how long it's going to take him or how many connecting flights," Fuentes said on Sunday. "And you know, he's pushing the envelope of how many places he can try to go before he would fall into hands of being in custody and possibly extradited back to the U.S.

"Or technically, because he does not have a valid U.S. passport, and if he does not have another valid passport, then the next situation could be for those countries to say, 'you're here illegally and we'll deport you,' " Fuentes said.

Wherever Snowden goes next, U.S. officials have said they plan to push to prosecute him. But Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, told CNN that extradition treaties "are read differently by countries in different circumstances."

The United States has its share of critics who say it ignores international law regarding the treatment of prisoners or the use of drone attacks, and host countries are allowed to question "whether a charged crime was a political act."

"It doesn't help to have all these senators and members of Congress calling for this guy's head," Turley said, referring to lawmakers who have accused Snowden of treason. "All this hue and cry adds to the sort of political perspective of this case. That is not going to help the U.S. State Department or the Justice Department."

Assange: How notoriety has changed a trapped man

CNN's Phil Black, Elise Labott and Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.

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