Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about the country's surveillance programs, left Hong Kong Sunday to a third country.
Snowden left Hong Kong on his own accord for a third country through "a lawful and normal channel," despite an earlier request from the U.S. to Hong Kong for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against him, the Hong Kong government said in a statement Sunday. The Hong Kong authorities did not name the country Snowden was headed to.
Snowden is on a commercial flight to Russia, but Moscow will not be his final destination, the South China Morning Post reported. He flew to Hong Kong last month after leaving his job as a contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii.
WikiLeaks said in a Twitter message Sunday that Snowden "is currently over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors." The whistle-blower site has assisted Snowden's political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers and safe exit from Hong Kong, it said in another message.
Later on Sunday, Wikileaks issued a statement saying that Snowden is en route to Ecuador, where he will request asylum. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has revoked Snowden's passport, according to multiple media reports.
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador in August last year, but is holed in the country's embassy in the U.K. because the U.K. police has refused to grant him passage to Quito, and threatens to arrest him in connection with an extradition request from Sweden where he is wanted for questioning on alleged sexual misconduct charges.
Snowden was charged by the U.S. in a federal court for theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. The complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was filed on June 14.
The former NSA contractor is said to have passed on documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers about large-scale surveillance programs in the U.S., including the collection of phone metadata of Verizon's customers in the U.S., and real-time access to the content on servers of Internet companies like Facebook and Google. The companies have denied their participation in the program.
The Hong Kong government said it had requested the U.S. government to provide additional information so that its department of justice could consider whether the request for a provisional warrant of arrest could meet the relevant legal conditions.
As Hong Kong 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," the government said in the statement. Hong Kong said it had already informed the U.S. about Snowden's departure.
The Hong Kong special administrative region has also asked for clarification from the U.S. on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies. The government said it will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong. Snowden told the Post that the U.S. is hacking Chinese mobile phones companies to steal text messages, the newspaper reported Sunday. He had earlier alleged that the NSA had snooped on targets in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland, according to the newspaper.
(Juan Carlos Perez in Miami contributed to this report.)