QUITO - Ecuador has granted political asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said on Thursday, a day after the British government threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Assange.
Britain has said it is determined to extradite the former computer hacker, who enraged Washington in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published secret US diplomatic cables, to Sweden where he has been accused of rape and sexual assault.
"Ecuador has decided to grant political asylum to Julian Assange following the request sent to the President," Patino told a press conference in Quito.
He argued that Assange's personal security was at risk, extradition to a third country without proper guarantees was probable, and legal evidence showed he would not have a fair trial if eventually transferred to the United States.
"This is a sovereign decision protected by international law. It makes no sense to surmise that this implies a breaking of relations (with Britain)," Patino added.
Even with asylum granted, Assange has little chance of leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested.
There has been speculation he could travel to an airport in a diplomatic car, be smuggled out in a diplomatic bag, or even be appointed an Ecuadorean diplomat to give him immunity.
But lawyers and diplomats see those scenarios as practically unworkable.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is a self-declared enemy of "corrupt" media and US "imperialism," and part of a left-leaning block of South American leaders.
He apparently hit it off with Assange during a TV interview the Australian did with him in May. Correa joked then with Assange that he had joined "the club of the persecuted."
Foreign minister Patino called the UK government's threat to enter the embassy "brutal," and acknowledged the only way Assange could travel to Ecuador would be if Britain grants him a safe pass to travel to an airport.
However, Britain will not give WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange safe passage out of the country and is determined to extradite him to Sweden, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday.
Ecuador's decision to grant Assange political asylum should not be used as a way for him to escape the legal process, Hague added. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sexual assault allegations.
"We will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so," Hague told a news conference in London. "The United Kingdom does not recognise the principle of diplomatic asylum."
The situation could go on for a considerable time and there is no threat to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Assange is holed up, Hague said.