MOSCOW Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday that Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy agency contractor, deserved the "world's protection" for divulging details of Washington's spy program.
Snowden, wanted by Washington on spying charges for revealing the secret U.S. electronic surveillance program Prism, has applied for political asylum in more than a dozen countries, in his search for safety.
The 30-year-old is in legal limbo in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, unable to fly on to a hoped-for destination in Latin America because he has no legal travel documents and no Russian visa to leave the airport.
On Monday, he broke a nine-day silence since arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong, challenging Washington by saying he was free to publish more about its programs and that he was being illegally persecuted.
That ruled out a prolonged stay in Russia, where a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Snowden had withdrawn his request for asylum after the Russian leader said he should give up his "anti-American activity".
But while countries lined up to deny his asylum requests, Venezuela, part of an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America, said it was time to stop berating a man who has "done something very important for humanity".
"He deserves the world's protection. He has not asked us for it yet. When he does we will give our answer," Maduro told Reuters during a visit to Moscow.
He said he would consider an asylum application if Snowden made one. His request for safety in Ecuador, which has sheltered the founder of antisecrecy group WikiLeaks Julian Assange in its London embassy, has seemingly ended.
U.S. President Barack Obama, embarrassed by the affair, has made clear to a number of countries that granting him asylum would carry costs.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was quoted in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Monday as saying his country could not consider an asylum request unless Snowden was on Ecuadorean territory.
He said giving Snowden a temporary travel pass to fly to Moscow from Hong Kong was "a mistake on our part".
"Are we responsible for getting him to Ecuador? It's not logical," he said, adding that Snowden was now Moscow's problem.
Moscow has been unwilling to send Snowden to the United States and look weak but is just as unwilling to damage ties with Washington over a man Putin, a former KGB spy, has little sympathy with.
"Snowden is in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport and has not crossed the Russian Federation's border (onto Russian soil) ... Russia has never extradited anyone, is not extraditing anyone and will not extradite anyone," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday.
Peskov said Snowden showed no sign of stopping releasing secret U.S. documents and added that he had "abandoned his intention (of staying in Russia)".
Snowden has prepared requests for asylum in countries including India, China, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, Bolivia, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela, WikiLeaks said on Monday.
By Tuesday, the list of rejections was growing.
Norway said he was unlikely to get asylum there, and Poland said it would not give a "positive recommendation" to any request. Finland said it could not accept his request as Finnish law required him to be in the country. France, Iceland and Italy said they had not received any formal request for asylum.
Snowden's options are narrowing. His U.S. passport has been revoked so he has no travel documents and he does not have a valid Russian visa to leave the airport.
In a statement released by WikiLeaks on Monday, he accused the Obama administration of deception in a campaign to prevent him from finding political asylum and of "leaving me a stateless person" by revoking his U.S. passport.
"This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile," he said.
"Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right," Snowden said. "A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum ... Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me."
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre rejected Snowden's allegation "since he is still a United States citizen and his country is willing to take him back."
Snowden said he was being illegally persecuted in a undated letter sent to Ecuador's Correa seen by Reuters.
"I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest," Snowden, who had been a contract employee for the U.S. National Security Agency, said in the letter.
"No matter how many more days my life contains, I remain dedicated to the fight for justice in this unequal world. If any of those days ahead realize a contribution to the common good, the world will have the principles of Ecuador to thank."
(Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Jon Boyle)