Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden applied Tuesday for temporary asylum in Russia, ending three weeks of uncertainty after he arrived from Hong Kong to escape the clutches of US justice.
The United States, which wants to put Snowden on trial for revealing sensational details of its spying operations, rubbished any notion that fugitive was a "dissident" and said he should be sent back home to face his charges.
Snowden made the application from the transit zone of state-controlled Sheremetyevo airport where he has been stuck for the last three weeks.
"The application has been filed with the Russian authorities," said Kremlin-friendly lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who attended a dramatic airport meeting between Snowden and rights activists, pro-Kremlin lawmakers and lawyers on Friday.
"There is no (other) way to resolve this situation," Kucherena told AFP during an interview in Moscow.
He said that Snowden would remain at the airport while the asylum request was being processed. Only a translator had been present at their meeting on Tuesday to make the application, he added.
"He fears for his life, safety, he fears that torture or death penalty could be applied against him" should he return to the United States, Kucherena said separately in televised remarks.
"And under these circumstances, understanding his position and situation, the Federal Migration Service should of course grant his request."
Russian Channel One TV showed the letter handwritten in English which Snowden had handed over to the Russian authorities: "I hereby request your considering the possibility of granting to me temporary asylum in the Russian Federation," it read.
The Federal Migration Service (FMS) confirmed it had received the application but the Kremlin sought in public to distance itself from the process.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was aware of Snowden's application but added he would not be involved in the decision as temporary asylum "is not a presidential issue".
Putin said earlier this month Snowden could claim asylum in Russia only if he stopped his leaks, and the activists who met Snowden on Friday said he had promised not to harm the United States.
Russia appears wary of provoking a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Washington over Snowden, at a time of already strained relations with the United States.
But after the asylum application, White House spokesman Jay Carney renewed calls for Moscow to send Snowden back to the United States.
"He is not a human rights activist, he is not a dissident, he's accused of leaking classified information," Carney told reporters.
"He's been charged with three felony counts... (and) he should be returned to the United States," he added.
Even though the Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Snowden, political observers have said that his meeting with activists at the state-controlled airport would have been impossible without Kremlin involvement.
"The way everything was organised so quickly, the whole logistics make it obvious for us that there's an interest of the authorities," the head of Amnesty International in Russia, Sergei Nikitin, told AFP.
"So the decision will probably be positive."
Russian authorities generally consider an application for temporary asylum for up to three months, with preliminary consideration taking up to five days.
Temporary asylum lasts for one year and would in theory give Snowden enough time to find a way to leave Russia, possibly for Latin America. It then can be extended every year for another 12 months.
The lawyer Kucherena said Snowden had no immediate plans to leave the country.
"Right now he wants to stay in Russia. He has options. He has friends and supporters," he told AFP. "Today I gave him a beginners' Russian book. He said it was the first present Snowden had received in Sheremetyevo."
Snowden flew into Russia from Hong Kong on June 23 and has since been marooned in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo. He was checked in for an Aeroflot flight to Cuba on June 24 but never boarded the plane.
On Monday, Putin said Snowden would leave Russia "as soon as he can" and accused Washington of "trapping" the American in Moscow, saying no country wanted to take in Snowden due to US pressure.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they would be open to offering the 30-year-old a safe haven.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino of Ecuador, which had originally seemed ready to offer Snowden asylum but then backtracked amid US pressure, said "let's hope" Russia grants asylum to Snowden.