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US trapped Snowden in Russia, Putin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Edward Snowden’s long stay at a Moscow airport as an unwelcome present foisted on Russia by the US.

Yuri Kochetkov/AP, pool

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Edward Snowden’s long stay at a Moscow airport as an unwelcome present foisted on Russia by the US.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin told an audience of students on Monday that the United States had effectively trapped Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former intelligence contractor, on Russian territory by frightening countries that otherwise might have accepted him. When Putin insisted that Russia did not want Snowden to cause damage to the United States, the students laughed out loud.

Putin made the remarks on Hogland Island in the Gulf of Finland, where he was reviewing projects of the Russian Geographical Society. He spoke about Snowden, who announced Friday that he would formally request asylum in Russia, during a meeting with student researchers who were attending an archaeological camp on the island.

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Russian officials said Monday that they still had not yet received an application from Snowden, and Putin did not say outright whether he would grant a request from him. But the president clearly signaled that it remained a possibility.

Snowden arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23, and he has been there ever since, living in the transit zone of the airport with the consent of the Kremlin and apparently with some support from the Russian authorities.

On Friday, Snowden met at the airport with lawyers, Russian officials and representatives of human rights organizations.

Putin’s comments came in response to a question from a geography student, Alexandra Schurova, who noted that despite living on the island, the students were interested in the spy action on the mainland.

Putin, a former KGB agent, teased that geographers had always been close to espionage activity and, according to a Kremlin transcript of the event, jokingly described Snowden as an unwanted Christmas present.

“He arrived on our territory without an invitation,” Putin said. “He didn’t fly to us; he flew in transit to other countries. But only when it became known that he was in the air, our American partners, in fact, blocked him from flying further.

“They themselves scared all other countries; no one wants to take him, and in this way they themselves in fact blocked him on our territory. Such a present for us for Christmas.”

Putin said Russia had invited Snowden to apply for asylum on the condition that he first stop his political activities — presumably all leaking of classified information that could harm the United States. But given Russia’s long intelligence rivalry with the United States, it is hard to believe that Putin has not been enjoying Washington’s discomfort over Snowden, and even his student audience laughed at the suggestion.

“Initially,” Putin said, “we offered him, ‘If you want to stay, please, but you have to stop your political activities. We have a certain relationship with the U.S., and we don’t want you with your political activities damaging our relationship with the U.S.’

“He said, ‘No.’”

The students laughed.

“You laugh, but I am speaking seriously,” Putin continued. “He said: ‘No, I want to continue my work. I want to fight for human rights. I believe that the United States violated certain norms of international law, interfered with private life.’”

The Obama administration has been pressing Russia not to grant asylum to Snowden, and it has been pressuring other countries not to take him, particularly in Latin America, where Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have said they are willing to grant him asylum.

President Barack Obama spoke with Putin by telephone on Friday. Neither side has disclosed precisely what was said about Snowden during the call, but the White House has made clear that in its view, American interests are being harmed as long as Snowden is at large and not back in the United States to face criminal charges.

Putin said on the island that he thought Snowden would move on from Russia. “As soon as an opportunity to move somewhere emerges, he will do it, of course,” he said.

In comments reported by Russian news agencies during a meeting with students, Putin noted that Snowden flew to Moscow on June 23 ‘‘without invitation,’’ intending only to transit to another country.

But Putin says the United States intimidated other countries against accepting Snowden, effectively blocking him from flying further.

‘‘Such a present to us. Merry Christmas,’’ he was quoted as telling the students on the Gulf of Finland island of Gogland.

Snowden said last week he would apply for Russian asylum. The status of that application is unclear.

Russian news agencies said Monday no formal application had been received. The Federal Migration Service told The Associated Press it had no information on the matter.

Snowden previously had sought Russian asylum, which Putin said would be granted only if he agreed not to leak more information. Snowden then withdrew the bid, Russian officials said.

But in a meeting in the Sheremetyevo airport international transit zone on Friday, Snowden expressed willingness to make that agreement, participants in the meeting said.

Putin did not say Monday if that would be sufficient grounds for asylum. ‘‘Judging by the latest statement, he has somehow changed his position, but the final situation still has not been clarified,’’ he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum, but getting there from Moscow without passing through US airspace or that of Washington’s allies would be difficult. The U.S. has annulled his passport.

Putin said Monday that Snowden apparently did not want to stay in Russia permanently.

But when asked where he would go, Putin said ‘‘How would I know? It’s his life, his fate.’’

Granting asylum to Snowden could be fraught with peril for Russia, aggravating tensions with the United States less than two months before Putin and President Barack Obama are to meet in Moscow and again at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

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