By Alexandra Valencia
PORTOVIEJO, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on Sunday the fate of former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is in the hands of the authorities in Russia, where he is holed up in hope of obtaining asylum in the South American nation.
Correa said his government cannot begin considering asylum for Snowden, wanted by Washington for leaking confidential information about a surveillance program, until he reaches Ecuador or an Ecuadorean embassy.
The 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor has not been able to leave the Moscow international airport.
"It's up to the Russian authorities if he can leave the Moscow airport for an Ecuadorean embassy," Correa said in an interview with Reuters in the coastal city of Portoviejo.
"He will be treated just like any other citizen even though he does not have a passport. We are clear that this is a special situation."
Correa's comments provide further confirmation Ecuador is unlikely to help Snowden escape his current limbo. His passport has been revoked and countries around the world are under pressure not to let him continue his journey.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected U.S. calls to expel Snowden to the United States and says Snowden should choose a destination and leave the Moscow airport as soon as possible.
A presidential spokesman said the issue was not on Putin's agenda and suggested it was being handled by Russia's domestic intelligence agency.
The asylum request has helped Correa boost his profile within the region and could help him take on the mantle of late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who for more than a decade was Latin America's loudest critic of Washington.
"This may be the largest espionage case in this history of humanity," Correa said.
Correa, who has repeatedly confronted the United States since first being elected in 2006, said on Saturday he had a "cordial" phone conversation with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who asked that Ecuador not grant Snowden asylum.
Correa said he would take into account the opinion of the U.S. government when making the decision.
BACKING FOR ASSANGE
Correa on Sunday sent his regards to Snowden, whom he has thanked for revealing information about espionage efforts by the United States that go beyond its own borders.
"Keep your spirits up and be brave," Correa said. "You have to know how to assume your responsibilities, but if you acted in good conscience then you can be at peace with yourself."
The fallout over U.S. spying operations, the revelation of which has been a major embarrassment for U.S. President Barack Obama, appeared to expand on Sunday as the European Union confronted Washington on reports of spying by the National Security Agency.
Ecuador said on Thursday it was pulling out of a U.S. trade benefits program in protest of pressure from the United States for having considered Snowden's asylum request.
"Ecuador will not be pressured or blackmailed by anyone," Correa said.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, granted asylum last year in Ecuador's London embassy, has not lost the country's support despite apparently contributing to confusion over a travel document Ecuador's government issued to Snowden, Correa said.
"In these crises when there is need to respond with urgency, it's also possible to make mistakes. But Mr. Assange continues to enjoy our support, respect and appreciation," he said.
Ecuador's London consulate issued Snowden an unauthorized safe-passage document, potentially as a result of communication with Assange, Correa said on Saturday.
Assange had said that Snowden received refugee papers from the Ecuadorean government to secure safe passage as he fled Hong Kong for Russia, which Correa's government had originally denied.
Correa's critics have in recent days accused him of letting Assange take charge of crucial foreign policy matters.
Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning on sexual assault allegations, has not been able to leave the London embassy because Britain will not give him safe passage.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)