Assange: British threat to enter embassy raises the stakes

THE threat by British authorities to enter the Ecuadorian embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange, wanted for extradition to Sweden, risks "accomplishing the unthinkable" and uniting Ecuador's political forces behind President Rafael Correa, says BBC correspondent Arturo Wallace.

With the police presence outside the embassy in Knightsbridge increasing, the country's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, addressed reporters in Quito yesterday, clearly furious at the British threat.

"Today we received from the United Kingdom an express threat, in writing, that they might storm our embassy in London if we don't hand over Julian Assange," Patino said.

"Ecuador rejects in the most emphatic terms the explicit threat of the British official communication."

Patino went on: "If the measure announced in the British official communication is enacted, it will be interpreted by Ecuador as an unacceptable, unfriendly and hostile act and as an attempt against our sovereignty. It would force us to respond.

"We are not a British colony."   

The threat to enter the embassy and arrest the WikiLeaks founder, who took shelter there eight weeks ago, came in a letter sent via the British embassy in Quito, which Patino made available to reporters. It read:

"You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy.

"We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.

"We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations."

Today, at 1pm British time, Ecuador is expected to formally announce its decision on whether it will grant Assange political asylum.

Yesterday, it was being mooted that President Correa's expected offer to grant asylum was a symbolic gesture only and that Ecuador would be unable to deliver on its promise, because of the impracticality of spiriting Assange out of Britain.

Now Correa's critics in Ecuador are waiting to see whether the threat to enter the embassy will encourage the president to stand up to Britain. As the BBC's correspondent says, they "fear any violation of Ecuador's sovereignty would strengthen Mr Correa and could turn him into a hero".

If Correa does grant Assange asylum, a continued stand-off seems inevitable.

The Guardian says analysts in Quito do not expect Britain to carry out its threat to enter the embassy. Julio Echeverria of Quito's Flasco University said Britain "has a long-established tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions", which under international law are considered sovereign territory.

And as The Week reported yesterday, any attempt to move Assange from the embassy to an airport will result in his immediate arrest – unless subterfuge is employed. And that would open a diplomatic can of worms. · 

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