US leaker Snowden's hopes rise after 3 Latin American nations offer asylum

MOSCOW (AFP) - Hopes have risen that Edward Snowden may finally be able to leave Moscow, where he has been stranded in an airport for 14 days, after three Latin American countries offered the fugitive US intelligence leaker asylum.

Bolivia on Saturday became the third country to offer refuge to the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, with President Evo Morales saying he was willing to take Snowden in "if he asks".

The offer came not long after Venezuela's leftist President Nicolas Maduro said he would grant the 30-year-old "humanitarian asylum" and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country could offer a safe haven.

The flurry of offers arrived after a series of rejections from many of the 21 countries to which Snowden had applied to last week for refuge.

The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website that has been supporting Snowden's cause said he had recently applied to six additional countries that it refused to name.

But it was far from clear how exactly Snowden - hidden out of sight of reporters for the past two weeks - could reach another nation from the transit zone of Russia's sprawling Sheremetyevo international airport.

He has been stripped of his passport by the US authorities and a refugee pass initially believed to have been offered to him by Ecuador has since been declared invalid.

"He has no passport and asylum can only be granted to a specific individual. I have grave doubts that this is now possible," senior ruling party lawmaker Alexander Romanovich told Moscow Echo radio.

Sheremetyevo only handles commercial flights and Snowden cannot travel past passport control to another airport used by foreign dignitaries.

Even if he got on a commercial flight, the plane carrying him could be grounded - the fate suffered by the jet carrying Mr Morales after several EU states denied it overflight rights over suspicions Snowden was onboard.

Analysts meanwhile said Moscow may be increasingly concerned about getting sucked into a diplomatic spat with Washington that it had never planned for and which it would rather avoid.

Mr Morales declared however that Bolivia has "no fear" of the United States and its European allies, and that he would be willing "to give asylum to the American, if he asks".

The offer was echoed by Mr Maduro, who visited Moscow at the start of the week for a gas summit during which he strongly hinted that Venezuela - long a diplomatic irritant for the United States - could welcome the opportunity to help Snowden out.

But he made his intentions absolutely clear in an address at an independence day event in Caracas.

"As head of state of the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela, I have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the young Snowden ... to protect this young man from the persecution launched by the most powerful empire in the world," said Mr Maduro said.

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega voiced a slightly more toned down message only minutes earlier.

"We are open, respectful of the right to asylum, and it is clear that if circumstances permit it, we would receive Snowden with pleasure and give him asylum here in Nicaragua," Mr Ortega said at a public event.

So far, only Nicaragua, of the three that have offered asylum, said it had received his formal request; that could mean a petition there is further along in the pipeline than elsewhere.

Ecuador had been seen as the American's best hope when he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23 after leaking secrets about the extent of the US data surveillance programme to the press.

But the leftist government in Quito has yet to consider his application.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to extradite Snowden to the United States while still stressing that he would like to see him gone as soon as possible.

Analysts interpret the mixed message as a sign that Moscow feel like they are being drawn into a fracas with Washington at a time when it would rather avoid additional difficulties to the two sides' strained ties.

"Russia is not happy that he is here. If it wanted to offer him asylum, this would have been done right away," said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Maria Lipman.

She noted that Mr Putin himself was a former KGB spy who cares deeply about the safety of state secrets.

Alexander Konovalov of the Institute of Strategic Assessments agreed that "there is nothing for us to gain from Snowden".

Mr Putin has denied ever questioning Snowden about the details of the US spy network and has even suggested that doing so was not worth the effort.

"Snowden's asylum in Venezuela would be the best option," said parliament's foreign affairs committee chairman Alexei Pushkov.

"This country is in a sharp conflict with the United States," Mr Pushkov tweeted.

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