MOSCOW -- Moscow's main airport swarmed with journalists from around the globe Wednesday, but the man they were looking for -- National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden -- was nowhere to be seen. The mystery of his whereabouts only deepened a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport.
An Associated Press reporter entered the area Wednesday by flying from Kiev, Ukraine, and found ordinary scenes of duty free shopping, snoozing travelers and tourists sipping coffee, but no trace of America's most famous fugitive. If Putin's statement is true, it means that Snowden has effectively lived a life of airport limbo since his weekend flight from Hong Kong, especially with his American passport now revoked by U.S. authorities.
In a further twist, Ecuador's foreign minister said Wednesday it could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden and the Latin American nation would take into consideration its relations with the U.S. when doing so. Speaking during a visit to Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur, Ricardo Patino compared Snowden's case to that of Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Patino told reporters.
Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn't board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.
The airport zone where Snowden is purportedly staying serves both connecting passengers traveling via Moscow to onward destinations and passengers departing from Moscow who have passed border and security checks.
The huge area unites three terminals: the modern, recently built D and E, and the older, less comfortable F, which dates to the Soviet era. The transit and departure area is essentially a long corridor, with boarding gates on one side and gleaming duty free shops, luxury clothing boutiques and souvenir stores selling Russian Matryoshka dolls on the other. About a dozen restaurants owned by local and foreign chains serve various tastes.
Hundreds of Russian and foreign tourists awaited flights here, some stretched out on rows of gray chairs, others sipping hot drinks at coffee shops or looking out through giant windows as silver-blue Aeroflot planes land and take off.
Business ran as usual at the terminals on Wednesday morning. An Asian girl, about 10 years old, slept peacefully on her father's lap. A middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter tried out perfume samples at a duty free store, while nearby a woman in a green dress picked out a pair of designer sunglasses. A pilot was buying lunch at Burger King.
Putin insisted Tuesday that Snowden has stayed in the transit zone without passing through Russian immigration and is free to travel wherever he likes. But the U.S. move to annul Snowden's passport may have severely complicated his travel plans. Exiting the transit area would either require boarding a plane or passing through border control. Both require a valid passport or other documentation.
Hordes of journalists armed with laptops and photo and video cameras have camped in and around the airport, looking for Snowden or anyone who may have seen or talked to him. But after talking to passengers, airport personnel, waiters and shop clerks, the press corps has discovered no sign of the leaker.