By Lidia Kelly
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Fugitive U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden could soon leave Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where he has been holed up for more than a month, after Russian authorities approved the necessary papers, an airport official said on Wednesday.
Immigration services declined comment but the official said Snowden, who is wanted by the United States for leaking details of government intelligence programs, had been handed the documents by a lawyer at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Snowden, 30, arrived in Sheremetyevo from Hong Kong on June 23 and has been stuck in the transit area between the runway and passport control since the United States revoked his passport and urged other countries not to give him refuge.
Snowden's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, declined to comment as he arrived at the airport.
But the airport source said: "The documents have been handed over."
It was not clear whether he would immediately leave the airport or where he would go in Moscow once he does so.
Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have said they could offer him sanctuary but none can be reached by a direct commercial flight so Snowden has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he believes he can safely reach one of them.
The United States wants him extradited to face espionage charges. But Russia has refused to send him home and risks further damage to relations with the United States if it grants him temporary asylum – a process which could take three months.
President Vladimir Putin signaled last week that he did not want the dispute to derail Russia's relations with the United States, and the decision on temporary asylum could be delayed until after U.S. President Barack Obama comes to Moscow for a summit in early September.
Allowing him to stay in Russia even temporarily would upset Washington. It will be Putin's first summit with Obama since the former KGB spy started a new term last year, and precedes a subsequent G20 summit in St Petersburg.
But a refusal would open Putin to criticism at home that he gave into Moscow's former Cold War enemy.
Both countries have signaled they want to improve ties, strained by issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to Putin's treatment of opponents and Western-funded non-governmental organizations since he started a third term in 2012.
"The grounds that he cited in the application…hardly allow for a refusal of asylum," Kucherena said last week.
Putin has said Snowden must stop anti-U.S. activities. Snowden has said he does not regard his activities as hostile to the United States but Kucherena said last week that the American had agreed to halt such actions.
Snowden, who has been assisted by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group, has not been seen in public since June 23 although he had a meeting at the airport with human rights groups on July 13.
He fears the United States will persuade its allies to prevent him flying through their airspace, or that his plane might be forced down so that he can be taken into custody and extradited.