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Russia

Empty Seat 17A: A Russian Reporter Continues His Hunt For Edward Snowden

Duped like other international reporters, Kommersant's correspondent took the phantom flight to Havana. Now he's back in Moscow, as the search for Snowden continues.

Catch me if you can
Catch me if you can
Pavel Tarasenko

MOSCOW - The regular Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana that departed last Monday was overtaken by an unusual commotion: this was the flight that Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor accused of treason by the United States government, was supposed to be on -- traveling from the Russian to Cuban capital, and then onto Ecuador, where it was said he would be granted political refugee status.

Dozens of journalists from the Russian media and the foreign media snatched up tickets for the flight.

The flight is typically filled with tourists wearing shorts and colorful t-shirts, on their way to soak up Cuba's sun. Instead, the people clustering around Terminal D of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport were carrying video cameras, audio recorders and notebooks. Tourists in Hawaiian shirts where practically absent from the scene.

As soon as the word had spread that the former NSA contractor was flying from Hong Kong to Moscow and then from Moscow to Cuba, dozens of journalists had decided to accompany him to Cuba and try to find out what was in the still-unpublished secret documents from the NSA that Snowden had in his possession.

Hide and seek

Snowden had set off on one of the largest espionage scandals of recent years, after revealing that the American spies were monitoring the correspondence between American citizens and people in other countries, without proper authorization. He also revealed that during the 2009 G-20 summit in London, British and American intelligence operatives monitored the computers and telephone calls of several high-ranking delegates. Washington reacted to the revelations by accusing Snowden of espionage and treason. Shortly before his departure from Hong Kong, the 30-year-old's American passport was voided. That did not cause any problems for his trip to Moscow, however.

The rumors that Snowden would make use of Aeroflot’s services once again seemed to be confirmed by the obvious increase in security personnel at the terminal for the Moscow-Havana flight. In particular, security officers continuously threatened to block anyone caught taking photos of the Airbus 330 from boarding.

Snowden was supposed to be in seat 17A -- that was the seat he choose during registration. I managed to snatch up the neighboring seat, but it was all for naught: Edward Snowden, as we all know now, was not to be seen among the passengers.

Standing next to Edward Snowden's seat on flight to Cuba. He ain't here. pic.twitter.com/NVRH3Pzved

— max seddon (@maxseddon) June 24, 2013

Just before take-off, the obviously nervous journalists actively discussed the possibility that the main character in their stories had in fact joined the flight through a special stairway that was brought out and connected to the plane at the last minute. The stewardesses insisted that the stairway was for technical purposes. So the press contingent was left with nothing to do but take photos of the empty seat 17A.

This was the second time that Snowden had managed to avoid the press. The "hunt" for the whistleblower started last Sunday, when he touched down in Sheremetyevo on the flight from Hong Kong. More than 100 members of the press swarmed the door where the "refugee" was supposed to exit, asking other passengers on the flight if they had seen a young man with glasses and facial hair.

According to the most popular tale being told, Snowden spent the night in the capsule hotel inside the airport terminal. But according to our sources, no one there saw the programmer either. Wherever he was, wherever he may go, as of this writing, most parties agree that Edward Snowden is still somewhere in Russia.

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