Ecuador is not considering Edward Snowden's asylum request and never intended to facilitate his flight from Hong Kong, president Rafael Correa said as the whistleblower made a personal plea to Quito for his case to be heard.
Snowden was Russia's responsibility and would have to reach Ecuadorean territory before the country would consider any asylum request, the president said in an interview on Monday.
"Are we responsible for getting him to Ecuador? It's not logical. The country that has to give him a safe conduct document is Russia."
The president, speaking to the Guardian at the presidential palace in Quito, said his government did not intentionally help Snowden travel from Hong Kong to Moscow with a temporary travel pass. "It was a mistake on our part," he added.
The comments clashed with expressions of gratitude the 30-year-old fugitive issued hours later, before Correa's views had been published.
"I must express my deep respect for your principles and sincere thanks for your government's action in considering my request for political asylum," said a letter, in Spanish and attributed to Snowden.
"There are few world leaders who would risk standing for the human rights of an individual against the most powerful government on earth, and the bravery of Ecuador and its people is an example to the world."
The former NSA contractor contrasted the silence of governments afraid of US retaliation with Ecuador's help in his flight to Moscow on 22 June. A temporary Ecuadorean travel document substituted for his cancelled US passport.
"The decisive action of your consul in London, Fidel Narvaez, guaranteed my rights would be protected upon departing Hong Kong – I could never have risked travel without that. Now, as a result, and through the continued support of your government, I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest."
The letter will boost Ecuador's reputation with Snowden's supporters but sat awkwardly with the president's attempt to distance Quito from the saga. Correa said Quito respected the right of asylum and appreciated Snowden exposing the extent of US spying, but will not consider an asylum request unless he made it to an Ecuadorean embassy or the country itself – a remote possibility while he remains reportedly marooned in Sheremetyevo airport's transit lounge. "He must be on Ecuadorean territory," the president said.
Correa added his government had not, and would not, give Snowden an authorised travel document to extract himself from the airport. "The right of asylum request is one thing but helping someone travel from one country to another — Ecuador has never done this. "
He said the temporary travel document issued by his London consul on 22 June – and publicly disowned five days later — was a blunder.
"It was a mistake on our part. Look, this crisis hit us in a very vulnerable moment. Our foreign minister was touring Asia. Our deputy foreign minister was in the Czech Republic. Our US ambassador was in Italy."
Narvaez and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has sheltered at Ecuador's London embassy for the past year to escape extradition, took matters into their own hands because they feared Snowden risked capture, said Correa.
"The consul, in his desperation, probably he couldn't reach the foreign minister, it was four in the morning, and he issued a safe conduct document without validity, without authorisation, without us even knowing."
The president said Narvaez would be "sanctioned" but that he understood the consul and Assange acted in good faith. Quito's appreciation for Assange had not been damaged, he said.
Correa, a standard bearer for the left in Latin America, softened his denunciations of the US over the weekend and praised vice president Joe Biden for a gracious phone call, saying he would consider Washington's request to refuse any asylum claim from Snowden while retaining Ecuador's sovereignty. Asked if he thought Snowden would ever make it to Quito, he said he did not know.