By Julian Pecquet - 06/25/13 03:16 PM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday rejected the Obama administration’s calls to extradite National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden to the United States, a move likely to increase tensions between Moscow and Washington.
"Snowden is a free person," Putin told reporters in Finland, according to Kremlin-funded Russia Today network. "The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia."
Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Snowden had “not crossed the Russian border,” and blasted U.S. demands for Moscow to act.
“We consider the attempts to accuse the Russian side of violating U.S. laws, and practically of involvement in a plot, to be absolutely groundless and unacceptable,” he said.
Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed classified information on the NSA’s secret surveillance of phone and Internet data, faces federal charges on espionage and theft of government property.
On Sunday, authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden first fled after leaking the documents, declined to enforce a U.S. extradition order, allowing him to board a flight to Moscow, where he is believed to be. Snowden is seeking asylum in Ecuador.
White House spokesman Jay Carney made clear on Monday that the administration expects cooperation from the Russians, and the State Department has been upping pressure on countries it considers accessories to his escape from Hong Kong.
“I would say that we are, obviously, in conversations, and that we are working with them or discussing with them — or rather, expecting them — to look at the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” Carney said of Russia.
“I would note that given our ... intensified cooperation with Russia, after the Boston Marathon bombings, and our history of working with Russia on law enforcement matters, including returning numerous high-level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government, that we do expect the Russian government to look at all the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States,” he added.
Putin said he was confident U.S.-Russian relations wouldn't be up-ended by his decision to let Snowden go.
The two countries are still hoping to co-host a last-ditch peace conference on Syria next month in Geneva, and are working in tandem on efforts to press Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program.
"In any case, I would like not to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig: there's lots of squealing and little fleece," Putin said of the Snowden controversy.
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