LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, seeking political asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London, faces arrest if he emerges for breaching bail terms imposed while he battles attempts to extradite him to Sweden, British police said on Wednesday.
A dozen supporters bearing placards declaring "Free Assange" gathered outside the five-storey red-brick building in the upmarket district of Knightsbridge where Assange sought refuge on Tuesday, causing Britain a legal and diplomatic headache.
Assange's 11th-hour decision to seek refuge in the embassy was more reminiscent of Cold War-era episodes seen in authoritarian countries than of the British legal process.
Swedish prosecutors want to question Assange about allegations of sexual assault made by two women, which he denies. The justice ministry in Stockholm said on Wednesday it expected Britain to extradite Assange, but authorities in London said he was beyond the police's reach in the Ecuadorean embassy.
Ecuador said Assange had accused his native Australia of abandoning him and expressed fears that if sent to Sweden he would be extradited onwards to the United States where he believes he could face criminal charges punishable by death.
Assange's website, WikiLeaks, angered Washington in 2010 by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
"I genuinely believe, and I know him well, that he fears for his life," said Vaughan Smith, founder of a now defunct TV news agency, who hosted Assange at his country mansion for 13 months after the Australian was freed on bail in December 2010.
"He fears that if he goes to Sweden he'll be sent to America and you only have to look at the treatment of Bradley Manning by the Americans to fell that he's right to be fearful," Smith told the BBC.
Manning, the U.S. intelligence analyst accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of government files to Wikileaks, faces a court-martial in September at which he could be jailed for life.
Beyond the political calculations, at stake is a 240,000-pound ($377,100) deposit provided by Assange's supporters, including a number of celebrities, to secure his bail.
Asked via Twitter by Britain's Guardian newspaper whether she was on the hook, socialite Jemima Khan tweeted back: "Yes. I had expected him to face the allegations. I am as surprised as anyone by this." Khan declined to say how much she had paid.
Authorities in Quito, who had briefly offered Assange residency at the height of the WikiLeaks furor in November 2010 before backing off, are considering his asylum request.
It was not clear whether Assange's decision to appeal to Ecuador was connected to a recent interview he conducted with the South American country's leftist President Rafael Correa on Russia Today, a Kremlin-sponsored English-language TV channel.
"THE CLUB OF THE PERSECUTED"
"Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted," Correa told Assange at the end of the interview, which was conducted by video-link between Britain and Ecuador and posted on YouTube by Russia Today on May 22.
The two men appeared to hit it off during the 25-minute interview, exchanging flattering comments and laughing at each other's jokes.
Assange expressed sympathy with Correa's battle against his country's media - viewed by Human Rights Watch as a serious threat to free speech - and praised him for getting more done for his country than President Barack Obama was achieving for the United States.
In London, a crowd of television crews and reporters were stationed in front of the Ecuadorean embassy but there was no sighting of Assange, whose distinctive white-blond hair has helped make him instantly recognizable around the world.
Neither U.S. nor Swedish authorities have charged Assange with anything. Swedish prosecutors want to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women, former WikiLeaks volunteers, in 2010. Assange says he had consensual sex with the women.
The former computer hacker, whose unpredictable behavior and love of the limelight has cost him the support of many former friends and colleagues, lost a long-running legal battle last week to avoid extradition from Britain to Sweden.
Having exhausted all possible avenues offered by the British courts, Assange's only option to keep fighting would have been an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. However, his flight to the Ecuadorean embassy complicates his situation.
"He has breached one of his bail conditions which was to be at his bail address between 10pm and 8am every day ... He is subject to arrest under the Bail Act," said a spokesman for London's Metropolitan Police.
($1 = 0.6364 British pounds)