Former US spy Edward Snowden arrived Sunday in Russia, requesting asylum in Ecuador to escape the US legal authorities after leaking sensational details of cyber-espionage by Washington.
Snowden, the target of a US arrest warrant issued Friday after he blew the lid on massive secret surveillance programmes, arrived in Moscow on a direct flight from Hong Kong and was expected to head to South America via Cuba.
The Hong Kong government said earlier it had "no legal basis" to prevent Snowden leaving because the US government had failed to provide enough information to justify its provisional arrest warrant for the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.
Snowden, 30, landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on a scheduled Aeroflot flight at 5:05 pm (1305 GMT), an AFP correspondent at the airport said.
He did not emerge into the main terminal area where crowds of journalists quizzed his jet-lagged and bewildered fellow passengers if they had seen the fugitive ex-agent on the flight.
Airport officials said Snowden in fact never crossed the border and would spend the night in the Vozdushny Express "capsule hotel" inside the departures area ahead of his next flight.
Russian media reports cited sources within Aeroflot as saying he would fly onwards to Cuba on Monday. The SU 150 flight to Havana leaves at 1005 GMT.
Reports initially said he would then fly to the Venezuelan capital Caracas but Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said he had requested Quito for asylum, indicating he would head there.
Ecuador has been sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted by Sweden, at its London embassy for the past year. The website said it had help organise Snowden's safe exit.
--- 'Transit passenger Snowden' ---
A source at Sheremetyevo told Interfax that "transit passenger" Snowden was still at the airport. "His next flight is to Cuba, he is on the territory of the airport complex where he has to be."
"He would not be able to leave the airport even in a diplomatic car -- he has neither a standard nor a diplomatic visa," the official added.
AFP correspondents also said they saw a diplomatic car at VIP arrivals with the flag of Ecuador. The Ecuadorean ambassador to Moscow was reportedly at the airport to meet Snowden.
WikiLeaks claimed credit for helping to arrange asylum for the man behind one of the most significant security breaches in US history.
"Mr Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed evidence of a global surveillance regime conducted by US and UK intelligence agencies, has left Hong Kong legally," WikiLeaks said in a statement.
"He is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks," it said without revealing his final destination.
Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of Wikileaks, condemned the pursuit of Assange and Snowden was an "assault against the people".
Wikileaks confirmed that Snowden was accompanied by a British citizen named Sarah Harrison, whom it described as a "journalist, and legal researcher" working with the WikiLeaks legal team.
--- 'No legal basis to stop him leaving' ---
Snowden's latest interview on Sunday contained new revelations about US cyber-espionage against Chinese targets, drawing a stinging response from China's official news agency Xinhua which branded Washington an espionage "villain".
In the latest revelations in the South China Morning Post, Snowden said the NSA was hacking Chinese mobile phone companies to gather data from millions of text messages.
He said US spies have also hacked the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing -- home to one of six "network backbones" that route all of mainland China's Internet traffic -- and the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which operates one of the Asia-Pacific region's largest fibre-optic networks.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying job in Hawaii and went to Hong Kong on May 20 to begin issuing a series of leaks on NSA eavesdropping of phones and computer systems, triggering concern from governments around the world.
US President Barack Obama's administration, which on Friday unveiled charges including theft and espionage against Snowden, has insisted on the legality of the vast surveillance programme and said it has foiled a number of extremist plots.
White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had said on Saturday that the charges presented a "good case" for Hong Kong to extradite him and that "we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case".
But the government of Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) under Chinese rule that has maintained its own British-derived legal system, said it had informed Washington of Snowden's exit after determining that the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with Hong Kong legal requirements.
"As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong," it said in a statement.
The charges against him include theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information, and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person.