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MOSCOW (AFP) – Fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Friday told rights activists he would seek asylum in Russia, in his first encounter with the outside world since becoming marooned at a Moscow airport three weeks ago.

The meeting at Sheremetyevo airport with rights groups and lawyers appeared an attempt by Snowden to find a way out of an increasingly difficult situation as he seeks to escape U.S. espionage charges for leaking sensational details of widespread U.S. surveillance activities.

Participants, including representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, told reporters after the meeting that Snowden told them he wanted asylum in Russia since he could not fly out of the country without travel documents.

They also said that the 30-year-old had vowed not to harm the United States, apparently in response to a key Kremlin condition that he stop leaking damaging information about Washington’s spy program.

Snowden has been holed up at the airport’s transit zone since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23 before his U.S. passport was revoked.

Human Rights Watch representative Tanya Lokshina told reporters agency that Snowden said “he wants to stay here”.

He has applied for asylum in 21 countries. Moscow said last week that Snowden had withdrawn his application for asylum in Russia after learning it was conditional on not harming U.S. interests.

“As far as I understand, he is seriously ready to obtain political asylum in Russia,” ruling party lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, who also attended the meeting, told reporters.

The Kremlin swiftly responded Snowden could stay in the country if he stops revealing confidential U.S. information, reiterating the position set out by President Vladimir Putin.

“Mr. Snowden could hypothetically stay in Russia if he: first, completely stops the activities harming our American partners and U.S.-Russian relations and second, if he asks for this himself,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments quoted by Russian news agencies.

The powerful speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, told state television that Russia should grant Snowden asylum, describing him as a “defender of human rights”.

According to lawyer Genri Reznik who was present at the meeting, Snowden “promised that he would not act to harm the United States”.

“He (Snowden) views the Russian president’s position with understanding,” said Reznik. “He understands that giving him political asylum will be complicated and will strain ties between Russia and the U.S.”

In a picture of the meeting posted by Lokshina from HRW, Snowden, wearing a grey shirt, looked healthy and calm as he sat at a desk flanked by two women, one of whom was an employee of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Sarah Harrison, who arrived with him from Hong Kong.

Nikonov said he appeared to be in “decent physical shape”.

The campaigners had on Thursday night received an emailed invitation apparently from Snowden to attend the former government contractor’s first publicised encounter since he arrived.

According to the invitation which was posted on Facebook by Lokshina, Snowden wanted to discuss his “next steps” as he seeks to escape U.S. authorities after revealing that the American intelligence services were seizing vast amounts of Internet and phone data around the world.

In a message, Snowden thanked Latin American states for considering his asylum requests but denounced “an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum.”

Snowden has made no public appearances since arriving at the state-controlled airport in the Russian capital. According to officials, he has spent the whole time in the airport transit zone but there has not been a single verifiable sighting of him until now.

The meeting comes after the United States on Thursday told China it was upset it did not hand over Snowden after he fled to Hong Kong, saying that the decision had undermined relations.

President Barack Obama, meeting senior Chinese officials who were in Washington for annual talks, “expressed his disappointment and concern” over the Snowden case, the White House said.

Photo Credit: AFP/Tanya Lokshina

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