MOSCOW — A plane from Hong Kong believed to be carrying the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden landed in the Russian capital late Sunday afternoon, and authorities said he was en route to Cuba.
There were conflicting reports about what precisely happened to Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities for leaking top-secret NSA information, once the flight landed at Sheremetyevo-2 Airport.
He was not seen among the flight passengers emerging from passport control and customs. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said that Snowden was expected to remain in the transit area of the airport until a flight to Havana on Monday, adding that Russian law enforcement authorities could not arrest him so long as he didn't go through passport control.
However, there were various reports saying he had left the airport under diplomatic protection.
Two passengers told the Los Angeles Times that they saw a black car with red license plates — which, in Russia, denotes diplomatic status — parked near the plane and picking up some passengers from business class before the other passengers left the plane.
"I saw two people getting inside a black car with red license plates," said one of the passengers, who introduced herself only as Natalia. "The car was speeding off when we were going down the gangway."
She said she couldn't see the numbers on the plates, which could identify the country to which the car belonged.
Rossiya-24, a Russian news television network, said in its report from the scene that shortly before the landing, a car with Ecuadorian diplomatic plates was spotted arriving at the airport. If Snowden got inside a diplomatic car directly from the flight, he would continue to enjoy immunity, the report said.
Rossiya-24 also reported that upon arrival, Snowden was examined by a doctor from the Ecuadorian Embassy. It showed video of a black Mercedes with Ecuadorian plates parked at the airport.
Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Snowden might spend the night at the Venezuelan Embassy. Venezuela and Ecuador, along with Cuba and Iceland, are considered places where Snowden might seek asylum.
A U.S. Justice Department official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity, said Snowden had left the airport under official Russian protection.
The official said as he understands it, Snowden and the Russians can claim he is in a "comfort zone" for the time being, until he departs Moscow, probably on Monday.
"We are not sure about Cuba as his next stop," the official cautioned. He said the U.S. also is monitoring Iceland and Ecuador.
Aeroflot confirmed to the official RIA Novosti news agency that Snowden was booked for its Flight SU 150, leaving for Havana on Monday at 2:05 p.m. Moscow time (3:05 a.m. PDT).
Hong Kong authorities allowed Snowden to fly out of the city Sunday, saying that documents supplied by Washington seeking his arrest and extradition did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law."
Snowden was en route to a "third country," officials in the Chinese territory said. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper that had repeated contact with the American during his month-long stay in the city, reported that Snowden had left on a flight bound for Moscow.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement saying, in part: "We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel."