HAVANA (AP) — Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew on Monday after a jetliner flew from Moscow to Cuba with an empty seat booked in his name.
Aeroflot said earlier that Snowden had registered for the flight using his U.S. passport, which the United States recently annulled.
The founder of the WikiLeaks secrets-spilling organization, Julian Assange, insisted he couldn’t go into details about where Snowden was, but said he was safe.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, Assange said.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told The Associated Press that Snowden didn’t board Flight SU150 to Havana, which was filled with journalists trying to track him down. Two AP journalists on the flight confirmed after it arrived Monday evening in Havana that Snowden wasn’t on the plane.
A member of the Aeroflot crew spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, but would not give his name. “No special people on board,” he said, smiling. “Only journalists.”
Security around the aircraft was heavy prior to boarding in Moscow and guards tried to prevent the scrum of photographers and cameramen from taking pictures of the plane, heightening speculation that Snowden might have been secretly escorted on board.
But about two dozen journalists who made the flight searched up and down the plane after boarding in a fruitless hunt for Snowden. One increasingly desperate Russian television reporter was briefly convinced that AP reporter Max Seddon might be the NSA leaker.
When the journalists realized Snowden wasn’t there, they settled in for a long haul flight to Cuba for nothing. Some read, others chatted.
“A substantial percentage of people on board were journalists,” Seddon said. “The flight would have been empty without us.”
A Cuban who was on the plane, Eulalio Pena, also said there was no sign of Snowden.
“We didn’t see him,” Pena said, adding that it was a flight “with no turbulence, and no alcohol.”
Security also was tight at the Havana airport, where Cuban officers forced journalists waiting for the flight to arrive to move outside.
Snowden had not been seen since he arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he was in hiding for several weeks to evade U.S. justice and left to dodge efforts to extradite him.
After spending a night in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, he had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
Experts said it was likely the Russians were questioning Snowden on what he knew about U.S. electronic espionage against Moscow.
“If Russian special services hadn’t shown interest in Snowden, they would have been utterly unprofessional,” Igor Korotchenko, a former colonel in Russia’s top military command turned security analyst, said on state Rossiya 24 television.
Interfax quoted an unidentified “well-informed source” in Moscow as saying that Russia received a U.S. request to extradite Snowden and responded by saying it would consider that. But the same source said Russia could not detain and extradite Snowden since he hadn’t technically crossed the Russian border.
The Kremlin has previously said Russia would be ready to consider Snowden’s request for asylum.
Justice Department officials in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The controversy over Snowden could further hurt U.S.-Russian relations, already strained over arguments about Syria and a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request, adding Monday that the decision “has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world.”
Ecuador has been helping Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
But Assange’s comments in a telephone conference with reporters that Snowden had applied for asylum in multiple places opened other possibilities of where he might try to go.
Icelandic officials have confirmed receiving an informal request for asylum conveyed by WikiLeaks, which has strong links to the tiny North Atlantic nation. But authorities there have insisted that Snowden must be on Icelandic soil before lodging a formal request.
A posting also appeared Monday on the Bolivian government’s Facebook page saying Bolivia had offered asylum to Snowden. Bolivia is another leftist-led nation with touchy relations with the U.S., but Communications Minster Amanda Davila told the AP the posting was the work of a hacker. “This information is absolutely false,” she said.
Snowden gave documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers disclosing U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, often sweeping up information on American citizens.
Officials have the ability to collect phone and Internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.
It isn’t clear Snowden is finished disclosing highly classified information.
Snowden has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Associated Press writer Fernando Gonzalez authored this report. AP writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Kevin Chan in Hong Kong, Sylvia Hui in London and Paul Haven and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.