MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia on Friday faced the wrath of the United States after granting asylum to fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who was settling into a safe house after over five weeks marooned in a Moscow airport transit zone.
The whereabouts of Snowden — who is wanted by the United States after leaking details of vast U.S. surveillance programs — remained a mystery with his lawyer refusing to disclose the location for security reasons.
The White House said it was “extremely disappointed” by Moscow’s decision to grant Snowden asylum, adding that it would now review the need for a planned summit between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin in September.
Nicknamed “the invisible man” by journalists, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor on Thursday walked out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport unnoticed and took a taxi to a secret location. He now has temporary asylum in Russia for a year.
On Friday, the pro-Kremlin Life News website published a photograph showing Snowden smiling broadly as he walked through the airport arrivals area with a rucksack on his back and carrying another bag.
He was shown accompanied by his Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena and a staff member of WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Sarah Harrison, as well as an unidentified dark-haired woman.
Snowden and Harrison had stayed in the transit zone of the airport north of Moscow since flying in from Hong Kong on June 23.
Kucherena said Snowden would eventually emerge into public view and give interviews but the fugitive first required an “adaptation course” after so long in the transit zone.
“He has sorted out where he will live, everything is fine,” Kucherena told the R.I.A. Novosti news agency Friday.
WikiLeaks said in a statement Snowden is now in a “secure, confidential place”.
The founder of Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte — 28-year-old Pavel Durov — offered Snowden a job as a programer but Kucherena said he was still deciding what he would do.
Kucherena said Snowden is being helped by a group of “American friends” whom he got to know while staying in the transit zone but has not given further details on their identity.
Snowden thanked Russia and slammed the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama for having “no respect” for international or domestic law.
“But in the end the law is winning,” he said in the WikiLeaks statement.
Russia’s decision to award Snowden asylum status came two days after U.S. soldier Bradley Manning was convicted of espionage for passing U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks.
Already tense Russia-U.S. relations risk straining further over the issue and the White House warned it could prompt Obama to cancel a planned visit to Moscow for talks with Putin ahead of the Saint Petersburg G20 summit.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “We’re evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this.”
“This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation,” he added.
Obama himself declined to comment when pressed by reporters in an Oval Office briefing.
Putin has yet to comment on Snowden’s temporary asylum. He was due to meet youth supporters at an annual summer camp later Friday.
On Friday the news anchor of Channel One television, seen as a Kremlin mouthpiece, said it was an “open question whether the meeting of the two presidents will take place in Moscow in September”.
Russian lawmakers backed Moscow’s decision, saying it had no alternative but to give Snowden asylum.
“By cutting off the routes for him to fly out, the U.S. left Moscow with no choice,” tweeted Alexei Pushkov, who heads the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Yet in a sign that contacts have not been entirely ruptured, the U.S. embassy in Moscow said that ambassador Michael McFaul had held talks Friday with Putin’s top foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov on a wide range of issues, including Snowden.
“They discussed reducing nuclear weapons, missile defence, Syria, trade, human rights and new status of Mr Snowden,” the embassy wrote on its Twitter.