Snowden in limbo at Moscow airport

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says that fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since flying in from Hong Kong — meaning that he has not officially entered the country. If true, it’s effectively a life of airport limbo for Snowden, whose American passport has been revoked by U.S. authorities.

Here’s a look at the place and how it operates.

WHAT IT’S LIKE

The area where Snowden is purportedly staying serves both connecting passengers traveling via Moscow to onward destinations and passengers departing from Moscow who have passed border and security checks. An Associated Press reporter entered the area Wednesday by flying from Kiev, Ukraine.

The huge area unites three terminals: the modern, recently built D and E, and the older, less comfortable F, which dates to the Soviet era. The transit and departure zone is essentially a long corridor, with boarding gates on one side and gleaming duty free shops, luxury clothing boutiques and souvenir stores selling Russian Matryoshka dolls on the other. About a dozen restaurants owned by local and foreign chains serve various tastes.

Hundreds of Russian and foreign tourists await flights here, some stretched out on rows of gray chairs, others sipping hot drinks at coffee shops or looking out through giant windows as silver-blue Aeroflot planes land and take off.

Business ran as usual at the terminals on Wednesday morning. An Asian girl, about 10 years old, slept peacefully on her father’s lap. A middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter tried out perfume samples at a duty free store, while nearby a woman in a green dress picked out a pair of designer sunglasses. A pilot was buying lunch at Burger King.

NO TRACE OF SNOWDEN

Putin insisted Tuesday that Snowden has stayed in the transit zone without passing Russian immigration and is free to travel wherever he likes. Snowden, who arrived Sunday on a flight from Hong Kong, registered for a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn’t board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be asylum in Ecuador. Dozens of Russian and foreign journalists boarded the Havana flight only to photograph Snowden’s empty seat 17A during the 12-hour journey.

The U.S. move to annul Snowden’s passport might have further complicated his travel plans.

Hordes of journalists armed with laptops and photo and video cameras have camped in and around the airport, looking for Snowden or anyone who may have seen or talked to him. But after talking to passengers, airport personnel, waiters and shop clerks, the press corps has discovered no trace of the elusive leaker.

Russian news agencies, citing unidentified sources, reported that Snowden was staying at a hotel in the transit terminal, but he was nowhere to be seen at the zone’s only hotel, called “Air Express.” It offers several dozen capsule-style spaces that passengers can rent for a few hours to catch some sleep. Hotel staff refused to say whether Snowden was or has in the past stayed there.

“We only saw lots of journalists, that’s for sure,” said Maxim, a waiter at the Shokoladnitsa diner not far from Air Express. He declined to give his last name because he wasn’t allowed to talk to reporters.

PLACES TO HIDE

The departure and transit area is huge and has dozens of small rooms, some labeled “authorized personnel only,” where one could potentially seek refuge with support from airport staff or security personnel. And security forces or police patrolling the area can easily whisk a person out of this area though back doors or corridors.

There are also a few VIP lounge areas, accessible to business-class passengers or people willing to pay some $20 per hour. Snowden was not seen in those areas.

Exiting the area would either require boarding a plane or passing through border control. Both require a valid passport or other identification.

Sheremetyevo’s press service declined to comment on Snowden’s whereabouts. A policeman at the airport laughed off a question from an AP reporter about Snowden’s whereabouts. “Journalists have searched this place for three days and have found nothing. Was he ever here in the first place?” the policeman asked. He spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

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