QUITO, Ecuador – Edward Snowden's stop-and-start flight across the globe appeared to stall in Moscow as the United States ratcheted up pressure to hand over the National Security Agency leaker who had seemed on his way to Ecuador to seek asylum.
In Ecuador's most extensive statement about the case, the foreign minister hailed Snowden on Monday as "a man attempting to bring light and transparency to facts that affect everyone's fundamental liberties."
The decision whether to grant Snowden the asylum he has requested is a choice between "betraying the citizens of the world or betraying certain powerful elites in a specific country," Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters while visiting Vietnam.
But what had been expected to be a straightforward journey to this South America nation dissolved into uncertainty by day's end. Snowden didn't use a reservation for a Havana-bound Russian airline flight that could have served as the first leg of a trip to safety in Ecuador, and his allies would not say where he was or what changed. Patino said Tuesday that he didn't know Snowden's exact whereabouts.
In Washington, the White House demanded that Ecuador and other countries deny Snowden asylum. It also sharply criticized China for letting him leave Hong Kong, and urged Russia to "do the right thing" and send him to the U.S. to face espionage charges.
A high-ranking Ecuadorean official told The Associated Press that Russia and Ecuador were discussing where Snowden could go, and the process could take days. He also said Ecuador's ambassador to Moscow had not seen or spoken to Snowden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Ecuadoreans debated whether accepting Snowden would be a step too far for leftist President Rafael Correa, who has won wide popularity with oil-funded social and infrastructure programs while picking public fights with his country's main export market, the U.S. Correa has expelled U.S. diplomats, shuttered an American military base and offered refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London to Julian Assange, praising the founder of Wikileaks for publishing reams of leaked secret U.S. documents. Assange has embraced Snowden and WikiLeaks experts are believed to be assisting him in arranging asylum.
With unprecedented international attention focused on Ecuador, many citizens said they felt giving asylum to Snowden would be courting trouble for no reason, particularly with a key U.S. trade agreement up for renewal in coming weeks.
"I think it's just being provocative," said Blanca Sanchez, 50, who sells cosmetics in the capital, Quito. "He needs to take responsibility for himself. This isn't our problem."
U.S and Ecuadorean officials said they believed Snowden was still in Russia, where he fled Sunday after weeks of hiding out in Hong Kong following his disclosure of the broad scope of two highly classified counterterror surveillance programs to two newspapers. The programs collect vast amounts of Americans' phone records and worldwide online data in the name of national security.
Assange declined to discuss where Snowden was but said he was safe. Assange said Snowden was only passing through Russia and had applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. had made demands to "a series of governments," including Ecuador, that Snowden be barred from any international travel other than to be returned to the U.S. The U.S has revoked Snowden's passport.
The White House said Hong Kong's refusal to detain Snowden had "unquestionably" hurt relations between the United States and China. While Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy from the rest of China, experts said Beijing probably orchestrated Snowden's exit in an effort to remove an irritant in Sino-U.S. relations.
Secretary of State John Kerry urged Moscow to "do the right thing" and turn over Snowden.
"We're following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure that the rule of law is observed," President Barack Obama told reporters when asked if he was confident that Russia would expel Snowden.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. was expecting the Russians "to look at the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged."
Carney was tougher on China.
"The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust," he said. "And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. ... This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship."
Assange and attorneys for WikiLeaks assailed the U.S. as "bullying" foreign nations into refusing asylum to Snowden. WikiLeaks counsel Michael Ratner said Snowden is protected as a whistleblower by the same international treaties that the U.S. has in the past used to criticize policies in China and African nations.
Ecuadorean analysts said accepting Snowden could jeopardize tariff-free access to U.S. markets for Ecuador's fruit, seafood and flowers. U.S. trade, which also includes oil, accounts for half of Ecuador's exports and about 400,000 jobs in the nation of 14.6 million people.
The U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act requires congressional renewal soon and hosting Snowden "doesn't help Ecuador's efforts to extend it," said Ramiro Crespo, director of the Quito-based financial analysis firm Analytica Securities. "The United States is an important market for us, and treating a big client this way isn't appropriate from a commercial point of view."
At the same time, high oil prices, a growing mining industry and rising ties with China may give Correa a sense of protection from U.S. repercussions. Many of the Ecuadoreans who re-elected Correa in February with 57 percent of the vote see flouting the U.S. as a welcome expression of independence, particularly when it comes in the form of granting asylum.
"This person who's being pursued by the CIA, our policy is loving people like that, protecting them, perhaps giving them the rights that their own countries don't give them. I think this is a worthy effort by us," said office worker Juan Francisco Sambrano.
In April 2011, the Obama administration expelled the Ecuadorean ambassador to Washington after the U.S. envoy to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, was expelled for making corruption allegations about senior Ecuadorean police authorities in confidential documents disclosed by WikiLeaks.
American experts said the U.S. will have limited, if any, influence to persuade governments to turn over Snowden if he heads to Cuba or nations in South America that are seen as hostile to Washington.
"There's little chance Ecuador would give him back" if that country agreed to take him, said James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador and career diplomat.
Snowden is a former CIA employee who later was hired as a contractor for the NSA. In that job, he gained access to documents that he gave to The Guardian and The Washington Post to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.
Snowden also told the South China Morning Post that "the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data." He is believed to have more than 200 additional sensitive documents in laptops he is carrying.