Snowden who? Ecuadoreans blase amid diplomatic tussle over asylum

QUITO (REUTERS) - Even as Ecuador contemplates offering asylum to former US security contractor Edward Snowden, there are few signs on the streets that the small South American nation is at the centre of a global dispute between superpowers.

Taking in Snowden would mark the second time in a year that Ecuador has defied the West, following its decision in August to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy despite furious objections by Britain.

But the country is hardly on guard for a diplomatic fire storm.

President Rafael Correa heads off for vacation on Friday and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino is on an Asia tour. Ecuador's top newspapers have given only scant coverage to the saga.

No demonstrators have taken to the streets, for or against the cause, and many seem unaware of who Snowden is.

"I haven't heard of him and haven't followed the case," said one man reading a newspaper in central Quito's colonial plaza who declined to be identified. Minutes earlier, Correa had waved from a balcony on the presidential palace during a ceremony unrelated to Snowden.

The former US National Security Agency contractor is in Moscow's international airport after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, but Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he had no intention of handing him over to the United States.

Snowden is wanted by US authorities for revealing classified information about a spying programme.

His secretive movements in China and Russia have triggered angry diplomatic tussling with Washington over whether they are trying to help him avoid capture.

A US State Department official said Washington had told countries in the Western Hemisphere that Snowden should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel "other than is necessary to return him to the United States."

Correa, a high-profile member of the anti-US leftist Alba bloc of nations created by Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, has in the past described similar US statements as hallmark traits of the "imperialism" he wants to eliminate.

Ecuador could take weeks, or even months, to make a decision about Snowden - as it did with Assange, who was granted asylum after arriving in June at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sexual crimes.