By James Pomfret and Benjamin Kang Lim
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - China orchestrated U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden's flight from Hong Kong at the weekend to avoid an extradition battle that would have embarrassed both Beijing and Washington, several sources said on Monday.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor wanted for exposing secret U.S. government surveillance programs, flew to Moscow on Sunday as Washington sought his arrest, and asked for asylum in Ecuador.
"One hundred percent there was communication between Hong Kong and the (Chinese) central government regarding how to handle Snowden," a source in Beijing who has direct knowledge of the case told Reuters, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to a foreign reporter.
"China did not want to offend the United States and was happy for Snowden to leave," the source said. The source however said he was unaware if there was direct contact between any Beijing official and the American fugitive.
A lawyer for Snowden said he was told to flee Hong Kong by a middleman claiming to represent the local government, but who was probably acting on behalf of Beijing.
Lawyer Albert Ho, who is also a Hong Kong legislator critical of China, told reporters he was approached by Snowden several days ago, and that the American had sought assurances from the Hong Kong government about whether he could leave the city if he chose to do so.
The pair had a lengthy meeting at which Snowden asked Ho to approach the Hong Kong government to gauge its position on a possible extradition battle and whether they would hand him over to U.S. authorities.
Ho said he met a senior Hong Kong official, who did not offer any comment. But Snowden later told Ho an individual claiming to represent the Hong Kong government had contacted him and indicated he should leave the city, and would not be stopped by authorities.
Ho said he believed the middleman was acting on Beijing's orders.
"They (Beijing) used someone behind the scenes to get Snowden to leave. And the Hong Kong government didn't have much of a role. Its role was to receive instructions to not stop him at the airport," said Ho, who is from the territory's Democratic Party, which opposes any meddling by Beijing in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 and, although it retains an independent legal system and its own extradition laws, Beijing has control over foreign affairs.
Ho said: "From seeing the nervousness with which the Hong Kong government didn't even give me any details at all ... I have grounds to believe that the Hong Kong government had no authority over this case. That's to say the whole case was decided by Beijing."
FAITH IN HONG KONG
The Hong Kong government had no immediate comment on Ho's claims. It said on Sunday it let Snowden leave because it did not have sufficient information to process a U.S. request for his arrest.
Just over 10 days ago, Snowden said he would stay in Hong and fight his case in court.
"My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate," he told the South China Morning Post newspaper. "I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong's rule of law."
In Washington, the White House said it had registered strong objections to authorities both in Hong Kong and in China at the decision to let Snowden flee.
Zha Daojiong, an international relations professor at Peking University in Beijing, said Snowden's departure was to the long-term advantage of both Washington and Beijing, since a prolonged extradition battle in Hong Kong would have affected bilateral ties.
"His departure removes a potential long-term problem in the wider relationship, whatever short term anger is expressed from the U.S.," Zha said.
The source in Beijing also said allowing Snowden to leave was the best possible solution under the circumstances.
"There is no way Hong Kong would have extradited Snowden (to the United States) because that would be tantamount to China obeying U.S. orders," the source said.
"If China allowed Snowden to remain in Hong Kong or come to the mainland, it would strain Sino-U.S. relations and only confirm suspicions that he is a Chinese spy."
Another source in Beijing, who has ties to the leadership, said China was repaying a debt by avoiding an extradition stand-off. The United States refused asylum to Wang Lijun, the disgraced vice mayor and police chief of Chongqing who sought refuge in a U.S. consulate last year in a scandal that later brought down his boss and senior party leader Bo Xilai.
"This is China returning the (U.S.) favor," the source said.
Officially, the Chinese government signaled its approval of the way the Snowden case was handled.
Asked if Beijing had influenced the decision on Snowden, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters: "According to the law of the Hong Kong special administrative region and the 'one country, two systems' principle, the central government respects the Hong Kong government's handling of the relevant case according to law."
Ho, the lawyer, provided a first glimpse into Snowden's time in Hong Kong, where he said he lived at a cramped private residence and used a computer to communicate with people around the world. Snowden was last publicly seen leaving a luxury hotel on June 10 following his explosive revelations of the NSA snooping programs.
"In Hong Kong he was living a completely secretive existence, afraid of being followed or intercepted so the pressure was extremely great," Ho said.
"Most of the time he never left where he stayed. He moved once or twice, but only at night, and very carefully so that no one would know. He was careful. He didn't go out at all. It was very tough to live in a very small place for more than 10 days."
Ho did not say where in the territory Snowden stayed.
He said Snowden had initially booked a flight for Saturday but later made a decision to fly to Moscow on Sunday. One of Ho's legal colleagues who accompanied him to the airport said he suspected was tailed by plainclothes officers.
Snowden was able to get to the immigration counter without any difficulty with his American passport, Ho added.
U.S. sources said Washington had revoked Snowden's passport. The New York Times said it was annulled a day before Snowden left Hong Kong.
(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Sui-Lee Wee and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)