NSA leaker Snowden's whereabouts unknown

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HAVANA -- Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew on Monday after a jetliner flew from Moscow to Cuba with an empty seat booked in his name.

The founder of the WikiLeaks secret-spilling organization, Julian Assange, insisted he couldn't go into details about where Snowden was but said he was safe.

Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, Assange said.

An Aeroflot representative who wouldn't give her name told The Associated Press that Snowden wasn't on the flight to Havana, which held journalists trying to track him down.

Two AP journalists on the flight confirmed after it arrived last evening in Havana that Snowden wasn't on the plane.

A member of the Aeroflot crew spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport but would not give his name.

"No special people on board," he said, smiling. "Only journalists."

The Interfax news agency, which has extensive contacts with Russian security agencies, cited a source as saying Snowden could have flown out in a different plane unseen by journalists. Others speculated Russian security agencies might want to keep Snowden in Russia for a more thorough debriefing.

Justice Department officials in Washington did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The White House demanded that Snowden be denied asylum, blasted China for letting him go and urged Russia to "do the right thing" and send him back to America to face espionage charges.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday it would be "deeply troubling" if Russia or Hong Kong had notice of Snowden's plans and that it would affect their relations with the United States.

The controversy over Snowden could further hurt U.S.-Russian relations, already strained over arguments about Syria and a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request, adding on Monday that the decision "has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world."

Ecuador has rejected the United States' previous efforts at cooperation and has been helping Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.

Despite its diplomatic tough talk, the United States faces considerable difficulty in securing cooperation on Snowden from nations with whom it has chilly relations.

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The White House said Hong Kong's refusal to detain Snowden had "unquestionably" hurt relations between the United States and China.

Experts said Beijing probably orchestrated Snowden's exit from Hong Kong in an effort to remove an irritant in Sino-U.S. relations.

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