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(Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Thursday he would not start “wheeling and dealing” with China and Russia over a U.S. request to extradite former American spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama, who appeared concerned that the case would overshadow a three-country tour of Africa that he began in Senegal, also dismissed suggestions that the United States might try to intercept Snowden if he were allowed to depart Moscow by air.
“No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he told a news conference in Dakar. Snowden turned 30 last week.
Obama said regular legal channels should suffice to handle the U.S. request that Snowden, who left Hong Kong for Moscow, be returned. Obama said he had not yet spoken to China’s President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue.
“I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is … number one, I shouldn’t have to,” Obama said.
“Number two, we’ve got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues,” the president added.
Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong this month after leaking details of secret U.S. government surveillance programs, then flew to Moscow on Sunday. He had been expected to fly on to Havana on Monday but did not board the aircraft.
The American, who faces espionage charges in the United States and has asked Ecuador for political asylum, has not been seen since his arrival in Moscow. Russian officials said he remained in a transit area at Sheremetyevo airport.
CHINA, ECUADOR HIT BACK
Snowden’s case has raised tensions between the United States and both China and Russia. On Thursday, Beijing accused Washington of hypocrisy on the issue of cyber security.
Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency in China and Hong Kong have given Beijing considerable ammunition in an area that has been a major irritant between the countries.
China’s defense ministry said the U.S. government surveillance program known as Prism “has revealed the concerned country’s true face and hypocritical behavior”. It did not name the country.
“This ‘double standard’ approach is not conducive to peace and security in cyber space,” ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told reporters, according to state news agency Xinhua.
In Ecuador’s capital Quito, the government said it was waiving preferential rights under a U.S. trade agreement to demonstrate its principled stand on Snowden’s asylum request.
In a deliberately cheeky touch from the leftist government of President Rafael Correa, Ecuador also offered a multi-million donation for human rights training in the United States.
Ecuadorean officials added that the U.S. fugitive’s case had not been processed because he had not yet reached any of its diplomatic missions.
Obama said the United States expected all countries who were considering asylum requests for the former contractor to follow international law.
His remarks about China and Russia seemed calibrated to exert pressure without leading to lasting damage in ties with either country. The White House said last week that Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave would hurt U.S.-China relations.
White House rhetoric on Russia has been somewhat less harsh.
Obama acknowledged that the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, but he said such a treaty was not necessary to resolve all of the issues involved.
He characterized conversations between Washington and Moscow as “useful” and said the United States would continue to press.
“My continued expectation is that Russia or other countries that have talked about potentially providing Mr. Snowden asylum recognize that they are part of an international community and that they should be abiding by international law,” he said.
Putin has rejected U.S. calls to expel Snowden to the United States and said on Tuesday the fugitive should choose his destination and leave the airport as soon as possible. Ecuador has said it could take weeks to decide on his asylum request.
Washington is focused on how former Booz Allen Hamilton systems administrator Snowden gained access to National Security Agency secrets while working at a facility in Hawaii.
Obama said the leaks exposed “pretty significant vulnerabilities” at the NSA that had to be resolved.
Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said on Thursday his country still had questions about Snowden’s activities as a CIA operative in Geneva from 2007 to 2009. He said Switzerland had so far only received a “diplomatic reply” to its questions.
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