Latin America & Caribbean

Edward Snowden's Ecuador asylum bid 'might take weeks'

Ecuador could take weeks to rule on an asylum bid by fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, officials say.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said it had taken Ecuador two months to grant asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of whistle-blowing website, Wikileaks.

The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, has suggested punishing Ecuador economically if it does offer asylum.

He said he was ready to campaign to end preferential trade access for Ecuador.

Senator Menendez has also called on Russia to stop sheltering Mr Snowden immediately and turn him over to the United States.

Wikileaks has been lending legal support to Mr Snowden, who is in a transit zone at a Moscow airport.

A Wikileaks tweet said the American was "well" and being accompanied by one of its legal advisers "at all times".

The website has not further elaborated on Mr Snowden's exact whereabouts.

Both Wikileaks and Russia have denied reports that the Russian secret police have questioned the American.

Mr Snowden first fled to Hong Kong before flying to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Sunday.

He was expected to board a flight to the Venezuelan capital Caracas on Monday but his seat remained vacant.

The 30-year-old IT expert has had his US passport revoked and applied for Ecuadorean asylum.

'Rights obligations'

Speaking during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday, Mr Patino compared the case to that of Mr Assange, who has been living inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London for more than a year.

Mr Assange walked into the embassy when his appeal against extradition to Sweden for questioning on accusations of sex crimes was turned down last June.

Mr Patino was quoted as saying that "it took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time."

But on his Twitter account he later accused the media of misrepresenting what he had said.

"In Kuala Lumpur I said that the decision about asylum could be taken in a day, a week, or - as in the case of Assange - could take two months," he wrote.

"Some media cut off the first half of my statement and left only the second. They are trying to confuse, we know what they are like."

Mr Patino also said Ecuador had not yet decided whether to offer protection to Mr Snowden in the meantime.

"If he goes to an embassy, then we will make a decision."

Ecuador said it would consider the American's application "responsibly" and would weigh "human rights obligations".

It added that the US would have to submit its position in writing regarding Mr Snowden.

Venezuela has also said it will consider an asylum application from Mr Snowden.

Mr Snowden's case has caused a diplomatic spat, with the US accusing Russia and China of assisting the fugitive. Both nations have rejected the charges.

'Groundless' accusations

Russia earlier confirmed that Mr Snowden was still in a transit zone at the Moscow airport.

Although the country has no extradition treaty with the US, Washington said it wanted Moscow to extradite Mr Snowden without delay.

But Russia said that the American was technically not yet under its jurisdiction because he had not passed through immigration.

However, the United States is in ongoing discussions with the Russian authorities over the fate of Edward Snowden, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.

He told reporters travelling with the US President to Africa that he was "not at liberty to get into the details of those conversations" but that they were taking place.

Meanwhile, China described accusations that it allowed Mr Snowden to leave Hong Kong despite an arrest warrant as "groundless and unacceptable".

The Chinese government has expressed deep concern about the leaker's allegations that the US had hacked into networks in China.

Mr Snowden is wanted by the US for leaking highly sensitive information to the media about a secret government surveillance programme, which he obtained while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA).

He is charged with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.

His leaks have led to revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data under an NSA programme known as Prism.

US officials have defended the practice of gathering telephone and internet data from private users around the world.

They say Prism cannot be used to target intentionally any Americans or anyone in the US, and stress that it is supervised by judges.