MOSCOW--Russia's foreign minister said there are "no legal grounds" for the United States to exert pressure on Russia to return Edward Snowden, whose whereabouts remained a mystery Tuesday, two days after his arrival in Moscow from Hong Kong.
The official ITAR-TASS news agency quoted unidentified sources at Sheremetyevo Airport saying Snowden was still in the airport's transit zone. There was speculation, however, that Snowden might have flown to nearby Belarus.
Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, is wanted by the United States for crimes involving the release of highly classified documents that exposed the scope of American electronic eavesdropping. Based in Hawaii, he fled first to Hong Kong, which denied an American extradition request, and then to Russia. He had been expected to fly to Cuba and from there to Ecuador on Monday, but was not seen on the flight.
U.S. officials have sharply criticized China for failing to return Snowden, and have been pressing the Russians to turn him over. But Russian relations with the United States have been chilly recently, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted heatedly Tuesday to the American requests, which he characterized as considerably more pointed than has been evident in public.
"We consider absolutely ungrounded and unacceptable the attempts we are witnessing now to accuse the Russian side of violating U.S. laws and of almost being involved in a conspiracy, on top of it accompanied by threats addressed to us," Lavrov said in televised remarks. "We proceed from the fact no legal grounds exist for such conduct on the part of U.S. officials."
Lavrov also said that Russia has "nothing to do with either Mr. Snowden or his relations with the U.S. justice or his movements around the world."
Lavrov said that Snowden has chosen his route on his own accord and hasn't crossed the Russian border, which would mean he has not left the transit area of the airport.
Speculation began bubbling up over the idea that Snowden had left Russia via neighboring Belarus, which has remained a Communist-style dictatorship and has prickly relations with Washington.
The idea formed after Andrei Savinykh, spokesman for the foreign ministry of Belarus, issued a statement Tuesday saying that Snowden hadn't asked Belarussian authorities for asylum -- answering a question that few, if any, had been asking.
"No, Snowden didn't apply," Savinykh told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.
A flight to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, departed Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow around the same time as the Havana flight on which Snowden had reportedly booked a seat. There were two flights that night from Minsk to Havana.
"It is totally possible that Snowden could have chosen the route to Havana via Minsk to shake the chase off his heels," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal. "Whoever is helping him, be it WikiLeaks lawyers or some special service, they are proving to very smart and ingenious."
"Russia is not particularly happy with Snowden on its turf as a big unwanted splinter in Russia-U.S. relationship," he added. "But helping the United States to catch him is the last thing Russia wants." He added that Russia is "obviously enjoying the chance to flip Washington on the nose."