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Ecuador: Decision on Edward Snowden asylum could take months

Updated 10:05 a.m. ET

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia Ecuador's foreign minister said Wednesday his government could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to fugitive U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino compared Snowden's case to that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Patino told a news conference during a visit to Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur.

WikiLeaks spokespersons have said Ecuador is for the moment the only place Snowden has officially applied to for asylum from U.S. prosecution.

Asked if Ecuador would provide protection to Snowden while considering his request for asylum, Patino said through a translator that if Snowden "goes to the embassy, then we will make a decision."

Whether Snowden could get to the embassy is an open question. Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Wednesday that Snowden is in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, but he rejected U.S. pleas to turn him over. Putin and other officials have cited the fact that legally the transit zone is not Russian territory, and therefore they'd prefer to not get involved. If Snowden were to attempt to make it to the Ecuadoran Embassy, however, he would have to cross Russian territory, and perhaps force a decision on the Kremlin.

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Russian foreign ministry sources told CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata that Snowden's arrival came as a complete surprise. Now that they're aware of the situation, however, Putin and other Russian officials have indicated they will for the moment do nothing and allow Snowden to stay in the transit zone of the airport.

At a press conference Tuesday, Putin said: "I prefer not to deal with these issues. It's like shearing a baby pig; there's a lot of squealing but not a lot of wool."

American officials have argued in recent days there is a clear legal precedent for turning Snowden over, and cited several instances where the U.S. has returned people wanted in Russia, despite the lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries.

Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering told CBS News the most important thing right now for the Americans is to start negotiations with Russia on Snowden, especially given that he may linger in the airport for some time.

"So far the answer to that has been fairly clear and from the top: 'No, we're not going to negotiate,'" Pickering said.

Still, President Obama and Putin have worked hard to overcome an often rocky relationship so far, so not all hope is lost, Pickering said.

Ecuador's Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday it has asked the U.S. to submit its position on Snowden in writing, according to Reuters. Embassy officials said Snowden's asylum request will be reviewed "responsibly."

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Patino refused to say what criteria Ecuador would use to decide whether to take Snowden, but added that his government would "consider all these risks," including concerns that it would hurt trade with the U.S. and his country's economy.

Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He registered for a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela and then possible asylum in Ecuador, but he didn't board the plane.

Snowden's leaks have reportedly sent intelligence agencies scrambling, with anonymous U.S. officials alleging that terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, are changing the way they communicate based on information they're picking up from reports in the media of U.S. surveillance programs.

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