PORTOVIEJO, Ecuador (AP) — Edward Snowden is "under the care of the Russian authorities" and can't leave Moscow's international airport without their consent, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told The Associated Press Sunday in an interview telegraphing the slim and diminishing possibility that the National Security Agency leaker will end up in Ecuador.
Correa portrayed Russia as entirely the master of Snowden's fate and said Ecuador is still awaiting an asylum request from Snowden before deciding its next moves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from the case since Snowden arrived in Moscow last week, insisting the 30-year-old former NSA contractor remains in the transit zone of the capital's Sheremetyevo Airport and that as long as he has not legally entered Russia, he is out of the Kremlin's control.
At the same time, the Kremlin said Sunday that it will take public opinion and the views of human rights activists into account when considering Snowden's case, a move that could lay the groundwork for him to seek asylum in Russia.
"This is the decision of Russian authorities," Correa told the AP during a visit to this Pacific coast city. "He doesn't have a passport. I don't know the Russian laws, I don't know if he can leave the airport, but I understand that he can't. At this moment he's under the care of the Russian authorities. If he arrives at an Ecuadorean Embassy we'll analyze his request for asylum."
Last week, several members of Russia's Presidential Council for Human Rights spoke out in support of Snowden, saying he deserved to receive political asylum in the country of his choice and should not be handed over to the United States. And a handful of protesters picketed outside the Moscow airport in what appeared to be an orchestrated demonstration on Friday, holding signs reading "Edward, Russia is your second motherland" and "Russia is behind Snowden."
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Ekho Moskvy radio that while Snowden is not Russia's concern, the Kremlin is aware of the viewpoints of Russian experts and representatives of human rights organizations.
"Public opinion on the subject is very rich," Peskov said in the radio interview. "We are aware of this and are taking it into account."
Correa said he had no idea Snowden's intended destination was Ecuador when he fled Hong Kong for Russia last week. He said the Ecuadorean consul in London committed "a serious error" by not consulting officials in Ecuador's capital when the consul issued a letter of safe passage for Snowden. He said the consul would be punished, although he didn't specify how.
Analysts familiar with the workings of the Ecuadorean government said Correa's claims that the decision was entirely Russia's appeared to be at least partly disingenuous. They said they believed Correa's administration at first intended to host Snowden, then started back-tracking this week when the possible consequences became clearer.
"I think the government started to realize the dimensions of what it was getting itself into, how it was managing things and the consequences that this could bring," said Santiago Basabe, an analyst and professor of political sciences at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito. "So it started pulling back, and they'll never tell us why, but I think the alarm bells started to go off from people very close to the government, maybe Ecuador's ambassador in Washington warned them about the consequences of asylum for Snowden."
Correa said Snowden must assume responsibility if he broke U.S. laws, but added the broader legitimacy of Snowden's action must be taken into consideration. He said Ecuador would still consider an asylum request but only if Snowden is able to make it to Ecuador or an Ecuadorean Embassy to apply.
The U.S. is seeking the former NSA contractor's extradition for leaking secret documents that, among other things, detail U.S. surveillance of international online activity. On Sunday, German magazine Der Spiegel reported that classified documents taken by Snowden also revealed U.S. spies had allegedly bugged European Union offices.
Correa never entirely closed the door to Snowden, whom he said had drawn vital attention to the U.S. eavesdropping program and potential violations of human rights. But Correa appeared to be sending the message that it is unlikely Snowden will ever end up in Ecuador. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of the U.S. legal process and praised Vice President Joe Biden for what he described as a courteous and appreciated half-hour call about the Snowden case on Friday.
He similarly declined to reject an important set of U.S. trade benefits for Ecuadorean exports, again a contrast with his government's unilateral renunciation of a separate set of tariff benefits earlier in the week.
"If he really could have broken North American laws, I am very respectful of other countries and their laws and I believe that someone who breaks the law must assume his responsibilities," Correa said. "But we also believe in human rights and due process."
He said Biden had asked him to send Snowden back to the United States immediately because he faces criminal charges, is a fugitive from justice and has had his passport revoked.
"I told him that we would analyze his opinion, which is very important to us," Correa said, adding that he had demanded the return of several Ecuadoreans who are in the United States but face criminal charges at home.
"I greatly appreciated the call," he said, contrasting it with threats made by a small group of U.S. senators to revoke Ecuadorean trade privileges. "When I received the call from Vice President Biden, which was with great cordiality and a different vision, we really welcomed it a lot."
Ecuadorean officials believe Russian authorities stymied the country's efforts to approve a political asylum application from the former NSA systems analyst, according to government officials with direct knowledge of the case.
Those officials said Ecuador had been making detailed plans to receive and host Snowden. One of the officials said Russia's refusal to let Snowden leave or be picked up by Ecuadorean officials had thwarted the plans. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the case by name.
One of the officials said Snowden had intended to travel from Moscow to the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. The official said Ecuador had also asked Russia to let Snowden take a commercial flight to meet Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino in Vietnam or Singapore, where Patino was on an official trip.
The Russians rejected all of Ecuador's requests to let Snowden leave Moscow, or to let an Ecuadorean government plane pick him up there, the official said.
Asked Sunday about those accounts, Correa responded, without elaborating, "We don't have long-range aircraft. It's a joke."
Snowden's path to Ecuador would have gone through Cuba, which said little about the case all week, including whether it would have allowed him to use its territory to transit.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro praised Correa's rejection of U.S. trade pressure, expressing his "sympathies" for the Ecuadorean leader in a Sunday editorial in the state press.
_______ Gonzalo Solano contributed from Quito, Ecuador. Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.