Correction:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the leader of Peru, President Ollanta Humala, attended an emergency meeting in Bolivia. He did not attend, and the story has been corrected.

Venezuela says it will shelter Snowden

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro said Friday that his country is offering sanctuary to Edward Snowden, the young American intelligence contractor whose flight after disclosing a secret U.S. surveillance program triggered a worldwide manhunt by the Obama administration.

“I announce to the friendly governments of the world that we have decided to use international humanitarian rights to protect Snowden from the persecution that the world’s most powerful empire has unleashed against a young person who has told the truth,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas.

Speaking at a military parade to commemorate Venezuela’s 202nd anniversary of independence, Maduro said he was offering asylum so that the National Security Agency leaker could live “in the fatherland of Bolivar and Chávez free of imperial North American persecution.” The president was referring to the 19th-century Latin American independence hero, Simon Bolivar, and Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who ruled for 14 years until he died of cancer in March.

Maduro did not say how Snowden — marooned in the vast transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport since landing there from Hong Kong on June 23 — would get to Caracas. But Venezuela has close diplomatic ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and his government has often shown that it will go to extraordinary lengths to counter U.S. influence.

There has been no official reaction in Moscow at all. Saturday’s 2:05 p.m. Aeroflot flight for Havana has departed, apparently without Snowden aboard.

A member of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Alexander Babakov, told an agency called the Russian News Service, “Given that Snowden’s U.S. passport was revoked and that he has no particular alternative, the proposal [from Maduro], especially from the mouth of the head of state, is sure to be accepted.”

And Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said in a tweet Saturday, “Sanctuary for Snowden in Venezuela would be the best decision. “ Caracas, he wrote, is already in an acute conflict with the United States. “It can’t get worse.” About Snowden, Pushkov wrote, “He can’t live at Sheremetyevo.”

There is precedent for Russia granting Snowden status as a “stateless person,” and if that happens he should have no difficulty crossing the border, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserve, Anatoly Yermolin, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Yermolin, according to the report, served in an elite espionage unit of the agency known as the “Vympel” group.

Venezuela is the first country to offer sanctuary to Snowden. The 30-year-old computer whiz has reportedly requested asylum from more than 20 countries — among them Ecuador and Bolivia, allies of Venezuela’s — since he arrived in Moscow.

And Maduro’s offer came just hours after WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that is helping Snowden, said the fugitive had applied to six more countries to escape American justice. WikiLeaks would not identify the countries “due to attempted U.S. interference,” the group said in a Twitter message.

A 50-year-old former union activist with close ties to Cuba, Maduro has been fervently trying to burnish his anti-imperialist credentials since winning a disputed election April 14 to succeed Chávez. He has talked about elaborate plans he says were hatched in the United States to poison him and destabilize his government and has accused the United States of infecting Chávez with cancer.

Maduro also has lashed out at U.S. policy toward Venezuela’s allies, from Cuba to Syria.

In his speech, he praised Snowden, asking, “Who violated international law?

“Ask ourselves: Is it a young person who rebelled and said the truth about United States espionage toward the world, or a government like the one from the United States?”

In his speech Friday and in previous comments, Maduro has characterized Snowden as a hero who has opened the door to U.S. war plans. Maduro has not explained the reference, but on Friday, he added that the “United States has launched bombs and armed the terrorist opposition in Syria against the people of Syria and against the legitimate president, Bashar al-Assad.”

“Who is the terrorist?” Maduro asked. “Who is the world criminal?”

Maduro’s comments have played well in some countries in Latin America, where there is indignation that Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane was apparently not allowed to cross the airspace of some European countries Tuesday because of the belief that Snowden was hiding aboard.

Morales, Maduro and several other leaders said the United States was responsible, a claim American officials neither admitted nor denied.

The scrape led to an emergency meeting of the Unasur group of nations Tuesday in Bolivia in which Morales and the leaders of Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay issued strongly worded statements against the United States and European countries accused of having blocked the flight path of Morales’s plane.

The only obvious route to Venezuela by commercial flight that would avoid a country friendly to the United States is by Aeroflot though Havana. Flights leave Moscow for Cuba Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. But that flight would have to pass over Europe, and after France, Spain and Italy denied overflight rights to Bolivia’s presidential plane earlier in the week, it is not clear whether there could be interference with an Aeroflot flight if it was known that Snowden was aboard.

Russian authorities have said that Snowden must have proper travel documents in order to board a flight, which he has lacked ever since his American passport was revoked. But they have also said, in public at least, that they are eager to see him go.

On Friday, another country close to Venezuela and hostile to the Obama administration, Nicaragua, said it was willing to offer asylum to Snowden “if circumstances allow it,” as President Daniel Ortega put it.

But Venezuela, which has ample oil-fueled coffers and a deep antipathy toward Washington, has been most forceful in praising Snowden’s actions.

Indeed, on Tuesday in Moscow, where he was attending an energy conference, Maduro spoke frequently about Snowden, saying his revelations showed how “the imperialist elite of the United States want to control the world, that they spy on friends and foes, that they spy on the whole world.”

While he was in Moscow, Maduro attended a ceremony renaming a street after Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president. Igor Sechin, who as the head of the state-owned Russian oil giant Rosneft and one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin’s inner circle had gone to Caracas as President Vladimir Putin’s representative at Chavez’s funeral, made an emotional appearance at the renaming.

Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia; Englund reported from Moscow.

 
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