LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent over two years in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid a sex crimes inquiry in Sweden, said on Monday he planned to leave the building “soon”, but Britain signaled it would still arrest him if he tried.
Assange made the surprise assertion during a news conference alongside Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino. But his spokesman played down the chances of an imminent departure, saying the British government would first need to revise its position and let him leave without arrest, something it has repeatedly refused to do.
The 43-year-old Australian fled to the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition for questioning in Sweden over sex assault and rape allegations, which he denies.
He says he fears that if extradited to Sweden he would then be handed over to the United States, where he could be tried for one of the largest information leaks in U.S. history.
Assange would be arrested if he exited the London embassy because he has breached his British bail terms.
“I am leaving the embassy soon ... but perhaps not for the reasons that Murdoch press and Sky news are saying at the moment,” Assange told reporters at the embassy in central London.
Britain’s Sky News, part owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, had earlier reported that Assange was considering leaving the embassy due to deteriorating health.
WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of confidential U.S. documents on the Internet in 2010. That embarrassed the United States, and some critics say it put national security and people’s lives at risk.
Ecuador later granted Assange political asylum. But he was unable to leave Britain and has ended up living in the embassy’s cramped quarters in central London.
His comments briefly raised the possibility of his leaving imminently. But Kristinn Hrafnsson, his spokesman, told reporters that he could only do so if the British government “calls off the siege outside”. Assange had no intention of handing himself over to the police, he added.
Ecuador’s Patino said he would try to hold talks with his British counterpart to resolve the case. Recent changes to British extradition laws may mean Assange would not be facing extradition if his case had just started.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it remained as committed as ever to reaching a diplomatic solution to the problem, but reiterated that Assange still needed to be extradited.
“As ever we look to Ecuador to help bring this difficult, and costly, situation to an end,” a spokeswoman said.
The Assange issue has put Britain and Ecuador at odds, with London angered by the decision of Ecuador’s socialist President Rafael Correa to grant him asylum and Quito unhappy at the British refusal to allow him safe passage.
Asked about his health, Assange said anyone would be affected by spending two years in a building with no outside areas or direct sunlight, a complaint he has made several times before.
Writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Larry King