MOSCOW — Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for leaking classified documents, foiled his American pursuers Sunday by fleeing a Hong Kong hide-out for Moscow aboard a commercial Russian jetliner, in what appeared to be the first step in an odyssey to seek political asylum in Ecuador.
It was a day of frustrated scrambling by U.S. officials who have been seeking Snowden’s extradition and had annulled his passport a day before he left Hong Kong as part of an effort to thwart his escape. The authorities in Hong Kong said they lacked complete information to prevent his departure.
Snowden boarded an Aeroflot jetliner that reached Moscow on Sunday afternoon. Russian news agencies said Snowden was in a transit area, and Ecuador Embassy officials were seen at the airport into the early hours of Monday.
Ecuador’s government and WikiLeaks, the organization that exposes government secrets and has come to the assistance of Snowden, appeared to have played a critical role in helping spirit him away from Hong Kong.
Ecuador’s foreign minister said that Snowden had submitted a request for asylum. In a statement on its website, WikiLeaks said “he is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who has resided in Ecuador’s London embassy for a year because of his own fugitive status, said in an interview that his group had arranged for Snowden to travel via a “special refugee travel document” issued by Ecuador last Monday — days before the United States announced the criminal charges against him and revoked his passport.
The Obama administration was clearly flustered by Snowden’s successful escape.
The Justice Department said in a statement that “The U.S. is disappointed and disagrees with the determination by Hong Kong Authorities not to honor the U.S. request for the arrest of the fugitive, Edward J. Snowden.”
The statement said assertions by Hong Kong that it lacked sufficient information to carry out an arrest were “particularly troubling.”
A State Department official said it had taken steps to remind countries on Snowden’s potential transit path to Ecuador that he was a fugitive.