Assange to speak from Ecuador embassy in diplomatic standoff

LONDON Sun Aug 19, 2012 5:59am EDT

LONDON Aug 19 (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prepared to weigh into the diplomatic standoff between Britain and Ecuador on Sunday but may stay holed up in his refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid arrest as workmen prepared a balcony for his statement.

Ecuador has granted political asylum to the former computer hacker who incensed the United States and its allies by using his WikiLeaks website to leak hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic and military cables in 2010.

WikiLeaks had said that Assange would make a statement outside the embassy, stirring speculation that he would be arrested by British police who were patrolling in force outside the red-brick legation in a wealthy district of London.

But a workman inside the embassy could be seen on Sunday morning prising the hinges off a door leading to a small balcony on the corner of the embassy, indicating that Assange could avoid arrest by speaking from that perch.

"I cannot go into details of that for security reasons," a spokesman for WikiLeaks said when asked how Assange would make his statement at the embassy.

The former hacker is wanted in Sweden for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual assault and Britain has said he will not be granted safe passage out of his Ecuadorean embassy refuge, which enjoys diplomatic status.

Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish jurist and prominent human rights investigator who heads Assange's legal team, was also expected to speak in a separate address outside the building ahead of Assange's appearance.

About 40 police officers were stationed outside the embassy building on Sunday morning and a group of roughly 20 Assange supporters, many of whom have slept on sheets of cardboard outside the building since Wednesday, have decorated barriers with messages of support for Assange.

Assange's attempt to avoid extradition has provoked a diplomatic tussle between Britain and Ecuador, which said London had threatened to raid its embassy and cast the dispute as an arrogant European power treating a Latin American nation like a colony.

Britain says the dispute is about its legal obligations and that Assange should be extradited to Sweden. But Assange says he fears he will be eventually sent to the United States though Washington has so far kept its distance from the dispute.

"The United States views this as a matter to be resolved between the British government, the Ecuadorean government and the Swedish government," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said to reporters travelling with U.S. President Barack Obama.

"At this point, we have not intervened in this matter and I don't have any guidance for you right now on whether or not that's something we would intervene in," Earnest said.