Moscow - Russia said fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was free to leave the Moscow airport where he has been holed up for the last five days but confusion reigned on Thursday over whether he had the appropriate documents allowing him to travel.
Snowden, who is wanted by the US authorities for leaking sensational details of US surveillance to the media, is said by the Kremlin to have been at the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong on Sunday.
But in a mystery that has captivated the world, there has not been a single sighting of Snowden at the airport and his onward travel plans remain an enigma after he failed to board a flight on which he was booked to Havana on Monday.
"He has not violated Russian law, he has not crossed the border, he is in the transit zone of the airport and can fly anywhere that he wants," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Echoing comments by President Vladimir Putin indicating that Moscow is keen to see the back of its unexpected visitor, Lavrov added: "The sooner this [he flies onwards] happens, the better".
The United States has told Russia that it has a clear legal basis to expel Snowden but Putin has flatly rejected the idea, saying Moscow has no extradition treaty with Washington.
Considering asylum request
But according to the White House, the two sides are in contact over the former National Security Agency (NSA) technician.
"We are having conversations with Russian government officials. I'm not at liberty to get into the details of those conversations, but we're having the conversations," said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.
Ecuador, whose embassy in London is already giving refuge to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he faces extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, has said it is considering an asylum request from Snowden.
But senior Ecuadorean foreign ministry official Galo Galarza denied claims by the anti-secrecy website that Quito gave Snowden a travel document after his US passport was cancelled.
"He doesn't have a document supplied by Ecuador like a passport or a refugee card as has been mentioned," Galarza said.
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino warned earlier during a visit to Malaysia that it could take weeks to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden.
Venezuela likely to grant request
But he later backpedalled, writing on Twitter that reporters had misinterpreted him and that it could take "one day, one week or, like it happened for Assange, it could take two months".
Meanwhile Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said that Venezuela would "almost certainly" grant political asylum to Snowden if the fugitive US intelligence leaker applied for it.
Maduro, who like Ecuador President Rafael Correa is a leftist anti-American populist, is by coincidence expected in Moscow next week for an energy summit.
Snowden had been expected to leave Moscow on an Aeroflot flight on Monday to Havana, from where he could have caught a connection to Quito. He missed another flight on Tuesday and there was no service on Wednesday.
A Moscow-Havana flight is scheduled at 1005 GMT on Thursday but there have been no reports that he has a booking. The next direct connection is then on Saturday.
But the confusion over his travel documents and Snowden's failure to leave the transit zone has raised the prospect that he could be in limbo for weeks or even months while a solution is found.
Claims of Russian debriefing
WikiLeaks has confirmed that he is being "escorted at all times" by British WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison, a blonde who is one of Assange's closest aides.
Putin has also denied suggestions that Russia could be holding up Snowden deliberately to allow an extensive debriefing at the hands of Russian special services.
He arrived in Moscow on Sunday on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong, a special administrative region under Chinese rule, prompting anger from Washington over how the local authorities there allowed Snowden to travel.
Snowden abandoned his high-paying intelligence contractor job in Hawaii - which he himself described as "living in paradise, making a ton of money" - and went to Hong Kong on 20 May.
He then began issuing a series of leaks on the NSA gathering of phone call logs and Internet data, triggering concern from governments around the world.