MOSCOW -- President Obama sought Thursday to minimize the significance of a fugitive former national security contractor wanted for leaking government secrets, calling him a "29-year-old hacker" and suggesting that American frustration with China and Russia for apparently helping him evade extradition was not worth damaging relations with those countries.
Mr. Obama's remarks -- his most extensive comments on the fugitive, Edward J. Snowden -- came as new confusion swirled over Mr. Snowden's ultimate destination, with Ecuador's government issuing conflicting information over whether it had given him an authorized document of safe passage to travel to that country, where he is seeking asylum.
Mr. Snowden, who turned 30 last week, has been ensconced out of sight at a Moscow airport international transit lounge since Sunday, when he arrived from Hong Kong despite an American effort to extradite him on criminal charges. There had been speculation that he would board a Havana-bound flight on Thursday but he did not, raising the possibility that his legal limbo could stretch into weeks in his odyssey to reach a third country.
Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters in Dakar, Senegal, at the start of an Africa trip, said he had not personally called the presidents of China or Russia on the Snowden case because he did not want to elevate its importance. He said other nations should simply be willing to return Mr. Snowden to the United States as a matter of law enforcement.
"This is something that routinely is dealt with," Mr. Obama said. "This is not exceptional from a legal perspective. I'm not going to have one case suddenly being elevated to the point where I have to do wheeling and dealing and trading."
He rejected the suggestion that he might order the military to intercept any plane that might be carrying Mr. Snowden. "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Snowden's disclosures of American surveillance abroad have embarrassed the administration and raised debate about the government's invasion of privacy. Mr. Snowden and his supporters, including WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, have called him a whistle-blower and a hero. Federal prosecutors have charged him with violating espionage laws, and some American legislators have called him a traitor.
Ecuador, which is protecting the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, at its London embassy, has confirmed that Mr. Snowden has requested asylum and has suggested he is a victim of human rights abuses by the United States. But Ecuador also has said the application process could take months.
Adding to the legal questions of his asylum request, government officials in Quito said Thursday that Ecuador had not authorized any travel documents to be given to Mr. Snowden, whose passport has been revoked by the United States. Their assertions appeared to contradict Mr. Assange's statements earlier this week that Mr. Snowden had been given a passage of safe travel.
"The government of Ecuador has not authorized the issuance of any safe-conduct or refugee document that would permit Mr. Snowden to travel to our country," Betty Tola, the secretary of political affairs, told a news conference in Quito.
Officials in Ecuador also announced they were unilaterally renouncing preferential trade privileges given to the country by the United States. Those privileges, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were to expire at the end of July, and there was some doubt that they would be renewed by Congress because of the strained relationship between the two countries. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Ecuador on Wednesday its "trade preferences could be revoked" if it granted Mr. Snowden's asylum request.
Russian officials have said they consider Mr. Snowden a free man and have hinted they are pressuring him to leave. President Vladimir V. Putin said Tuesday that "the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better for us and for him."
Whether he is feeling pressure to leave is unclear: an immigration official close to the situation said Mr. Snowden is entitled stay in the airport as long as he wants, even though he has neither asked for nor received a Russian visa.
An extended stay in Russia would seem to narrow Mr. Snowden's options, allowing American officials to dangle carrots and sticks before countries like Ecuador and Venezuela that are considering granting him asylum.
A buzz of suspense surrounded Flight 150 to Havana on Thursday at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, with expectations that Mr. Snowden would be a passenger.
But there were no unusual security measures visible as passengers boarded the Havana flight, with two dozen reporters and photographers pressed against the terminal window as the plane backed away from the gate. Journalists from Reuters and ABC, who had booked tickets in hopes of interviewing Mr. Snowden, said it appeared that he was not on board.
Ellen Barry reported from Moscow; Michael D. Shear from Dakar, Senegal; and Rick Gladstone from New York. William Neuman contributed reporting from Quito, Ecuador, and Andrew Roth from Moscow.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.