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NSA Leaker Departs Hong Kong, Reportedly Headed To Venezuela

A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Sunday.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor accused of leaking classified surveillance information, has left Hong Kong for a "third country," the government in the Asian hub says.

The U.S. on Saturday asked Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, for Snowden's extradition after federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint last week charging him with espionage, theft and conversion of government property in connection with leaks to The Guardian newspaper about secret U.S. electronic surveillance programs.

The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or HKSAR, said in a statement that Snowden departed the territory "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."

Although Hong Kong did not say where he was going, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted an unidentified Aeroflot official as saying Snowden would on fly on the airline to Moscow, on to Cuba on Monday and then to Caracas, Venezuela.

Despite the extradition request, the HKSAR government said that documents from the U.S. asking for a provisional arrest warrant "did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law."

Hong Kong said it had asked the United States to provide additional information, but "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," according to the statement.

Hong Kong said it had informed the U.S. of Snowden's departure. The White House had no immediate comment.

WikiLeaks said on its Twitter feed that it had helped Snowden leave Hong Kong.

"Mr. Snowden is currently over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors," the anti-secrecy group said.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that Snowden would go to a "democratic country," but he declined to name it:

"'Owing to WikiLeaks' own circumstances, we have developed significant expertise in international asylum and extradition law, associated diplomacy and the practicalities in these matters,' Mr Assange said.

'I have great personal sympathy for Ed Snowden's position. WikiLeaks absolutely supports his decision to blow the whistle on the mass surveillance of the world's population by the US government.'

Mr Assange, who has himself spent a year at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he has diplomatic asylum, said that he was 'thankful to the countries that have been doing the right thing in these matters. WikiLeaks hopes that Ed Snowden's rights will be protected, including his right to free communication'."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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