The attempt by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to avoid extradition from the UK has taken a dramatic turn as he was granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador.
The Australian described the move as a "significant and historic victory", but Foreign Secretary William Hague made it clear that he would not be allowed safe passage out of this country.
Mr Assange has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past two months after facing extradition to Sweden where he faces allegations of sexual assault. He denies the claims and fears being sent to the United States if he goes to Sweden. The Swedish foreign ministry said it has summoned Ecuador's ambassador over the Latin American country's "unacceptable" decision to grant asylum.
He watched the asylum decision being announced via a live link to a press conference from the Ecuadorian capital, Quito. The conference was watched by more than a dozen staff at the embassy in London's Knightsbridge. Mr Assange walked into the room and publicly thanked the staff for their support over the past few weeks. Mr Assange will give a statement outside the Ecuadorean embassy on Sunday afternoon, according to tweets posted on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed.
Mr Hague said Mr Assange would not be allowed safe passage out of the UK despite the asylum decision and that diplomatic immunity should not be used to harbour alleged criminals. Mr Hague said it is a "matter of regret" that the Ecuadorian government granted the WikiLeaks founder political asylum but warned that it "does not change the fundamentals" of the case. The case could go on for some "considerable" time, Mr Hague said, adding: "We will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so."
Mr Hague dismissed Ecuadorian claims that they had been threatened with an "attack" on their embassy. "There is no threat here to storm an embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law," he said.
The Foreign Secretary also denied claims by Mr Assange and his supporters that there was a deal which would see him extradited to the US. "We have no arrangement with the United States. This is the United Kingdom fulfilling its obligations under the Extradition Act to Sweden, a close partner in so many ways, a fellow democracy in the European Union. It is as simple as that. Therefore to us it is a simple matter of carrying out our law but, as well as being simple, it is something we must do. We absolutely must fulfil our obligations under the Extradition Act. Therefore, we are determined to do so and we remain determined to do so despite the regrettable announcement that Ecuador has made today."
Ecuadorian ministers earlier accused the UK of threatening to attack the embassy to seize Mr Assange, after it emerged that the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 could allow revocation of a building's diplomatic status if the foreign power occupying it "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post". Under international law, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has convened an "extraordinary meeting" in Ecuador on Sunday to discuss the situation at the embassy. A statement released on the website of the foreign ministry of Peru, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the intergovernmental union, said: "The Foreign Ministry of Peru lets public opinion know that, in concordance with the statutory responsibilities of the temporary presidency of UNASUR, at the behest of the Republic of Ecuador and after consulting member states, an extraordinary meeting of the Counsel of Foreign Ministers of the Union has been convened on Sunday August 19 in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The meeting has been requested with the intention of considering the situation raised at the embassy of Ecuador in the United Kingdom."
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported that the cost of the police operation outside the embassy would go up to "at least" £50,000 a day. A spokesman for Scotland Yard responded: "We never know what the cost of an operation is until it is done, but the officers stationed outside the embassy would have been on duty anyway."