Britain fights to win friends as Assange row intensifies

South Americans rally round Ecuador after UK threat to storm its London embassy
  • @NigelpMorris

The acrimonious stand-off over Julian Assange's attempt to avoid extradition on sexual assault allegations intensified last night as Britain and Ecuador battled to gain international support for their positions.

The South American nation tried to win backing from its neighbours by condemning the UK's threats to enter its London embassy to seize the WikiLeaks founder. Britain countered with calls to countries around the globe – but focusing on Latin America – to explain that it believes Ecuador's decision to grant political asylum to Mr Assange was flawed.

Relations between the UK and Ecuador went into meltdown when Quito revealed the threat to arrest Mr Assange, regardless of his residence in the embassy building in Knightsbridge, under a previously little-known legal power.

The Ecuadorean government retaliated by announcing it would accept Mr Assange's asylum claim. But the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he would not guarantee him safe passage out of the country and underlined his determination to return Mr Assange to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.

There was no prospect of an early resolution to the stalemate yesterday, though the Foreign Office was reported to have contacted Ecuador with an appeal to "calm the situation down". Ecuador has filed a motion to the Organisation of American States calling for condemnation of British threats to seize Mr Assange, which it denounced as "a hostile, unfriendly act". The UK Government is resigned to members supporting the statement. One diplomatic source said: "They will see an imperative for Latin American solidarity. But signing up to a motion doesn't mean people are going to do anything about it."

Britain mounted a major diplomatic exercise yesterday, contacting several Latin American nations both on their home soil and at their London embassies. Sources insisted the Government was explaining the facts of the case and pointing out that the UK was acting in accordance with international law by backing the extradition.

Venezuela and Bolivia are offering full support to Ecuador. Argentina is sympathetic, partly because of the historic dispute over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. Mr Assange, who breached bail terms on entering the embassy around two months ago, is liable to arrest if he leaves the building.

WikiLeaks announced on Thursday that he intended to make a statement "in front" of the embassy tomorrow. However, Britain has insisted he could be arrested on the steps if he does so.

Carl Bildt, Sweden's Foreign Minister, gave strong backing to Britain yesterday and ridiculed claims that Mr Assange's life would be in danger if he were extradited to Sweden because he would be passed to the United States.