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Despite Snowden fracas, U.S. to hold high-level Russia talks Friday

Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's new refugee documents granted by Russia is seen during a news conference in Mosc
Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's new refugee documents granted by Russia is seen during a news conference in Mosc

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will hold talks with Russia's defense and foreign ministers in Washington on Friday despite Moscow's decision to grant asylum to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The State Department, confirming a report by Reuters, said the talks would go ahead and that Snowden's case would be among the issues raised when Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet their Russian counterparts.

"We have raised Mr. Snowden with Russian officials many times in recent weeks. We expect to do so again," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

"We would like to see Mr. Snowden return to the United States. I don't know technically what that requires, but we know they have the capability to do that."

Snowden had spent more than five weeks in a Moscow airport while trying to find a country to take him in. The United States wanted him returned to face charges for leaking National Security Agency surveillance secrets to the media.

Moscow's rejection of U.S. pleas to hand him over and grant him a year's asylum on Thursday has prompted President Barack Obama to rethink whether to hold a summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month.

Snowden's asylum in Russia also had put into doubt this week's "two-plus-two" talks between the Russian and U.S. officials.

The United States appears to be trying to avoid derailing ties with its former Cold War rival by proceeding with some high-level talks with Russia while still leaving Obama's participation in the summit in doubt.

SOLUTIONS IN SYRIA

Worsened ties between the United States and Russia could make it even more difficult for the two nations to arrange any kind of political solution in Syria, for example.

Moscow has supported President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war even as Obama has led international calls for him to step aside. Psaki said Syria would be part of the conversation.

"We certainly have our share of disagreements with Russia over a number of issues. And I'm sure they will be part of the conversation, as well," Psaki said.

She added that Iran's nuclear program would also come up.

There are concerns in Washington that, given deepening tensions, Russia may break ranks with Western countries seeking to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions through tough sanctions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticized perceived U.S. wobbling on the need for top-level contact between the two countries.

"The U.S. administration questions further bilateral contact at the highest level (due to the situation with Snowden)," Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax. "It seems to me that this is an utter distortion of reality. This is viewing the world through a distorted lens."

Ryabkov said Russia did not understand why the situation with Snowden was "being so blown out of proportion in the United States."

Snowden's father, Lon, plans to go to Moscow soon.

"We do not have a set date yet but we have been working closely with Anatoly Kucherena, Ed Snowden's attorney, on setting a definitive date which will be sometime in August," said Mattie Fein, a representative for Lon Snowden.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Paul Eckert; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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