QUITO/LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London and asked for asylum, officials said on Tuesday, in a last-ditch bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crime accusations.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his country would weigh the request from the 40-year-old hacker, famous for leaking hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.
The appeal for protection was the latest twist in Assange's 18-month fight against being sent to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two female former WikiLeaks volunteers.
The situation threatens to inflame tensions between the government of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's leftist and ardently anti-Washington president, and U.S. authorities, who accuse Assange of damaging its foreign relations with his leaks.
It is also an embarrassment for Britain, where the Foreign Office whose foreign ministry on Tuesday confirmed Assange was beyond the reach of its police in the Ecuadorean embassy.
"Ecuador is studying and analyzing the request," Patino told reporters in Quito. He added that any decision would be made with "respect for norms and principles of international law".
The Andean nation in 2010 invited Assange to seek residency there but quickly backed off the idea, accusing him of breaking U.S. laws.
Since his detention, Assange has mostly been living under strict bail conditions at the country mansion of a wealthy supporter in eastern England. His associates say that amounts to 540 days under house arrest without charge. Breach of bail conditions is potentially a criminal offence.
"While the department assesses Mr. Assange's application, Mr. Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean Government," the embassy said on its website.
"The decision to consider Mr. Assange's application for protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as the Government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden."
Assange arrived at the embassy in London's exclusive Knightsbridge district asking for protection and complaining that his home country of Australia had abandoned him and refused to defend him, according to a statement from Ecuador's Foreign Ministry.
"Such statements (from Australia) make it impossible for me to return to my home country and puts me in a state of helplessness by being requested to be interrogated by the Kingdom of Sweden, where its top officials have openly attacked me," the ministry quoted him as saying on its website.
According to Patino, Assange fears extradition "to a country where espionage and treason are punished with the death penalty". He appeared to be referring to the United States, because Sweden does not have the death penalty. Neither Sweden nor the United States has charged him with treason or spying.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority said it had no information other than what had appeared in the media.
The lawyer for the two female former WikiLeaks volunteers who made the complaints against Assange said he was not surprised by Assange's latest move but expected Ecuador to reject the asylum request.
"This (asylum request) is of course without any grounds ... It is nonsense actually," lawyer Claes Borgstrom told Reuters.
"He wants to focus on Wikileaks, the CIA etc. It will not change the situation, he will be extradited."
Britain's Supreme Court last week said Assange could be extradited to Sweden in about two weeks' time, rejecting his argument that a European arrest warrant issued by Swedish prosecutors for his extradition was invalid.
The only recourse left to him through the courts is an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Assange, who has not been charged with any offence in Sweden and denies any wrongdoing, has argued that the case is politically motivated because the release of documents on his website has angered the United States.
In 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing secret video footage and thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, many of them about Iraq and Afghanistan, in the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.
The silver-haired Assange spent nine days in jail in Britain before being released on bail on December 16, 2010, after his supporters raised a surety of 200,000 pounds.
Anti-censorship campaigners who backed Assange at one stage included celebrities such as journalist John Pilger, film director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan.
As part of his bail conditions, he had to abide by a curfew, report to police daily, and wear an electronic tag.
"There's been an organized campaign to undermine him in recent months in Britain," the BBC quoted Assange's friend Vaughan Smith as saying, "and he believed that if he was sent to Sweden, he would be sent to America".
Smith put Assange up until last December.
Wikileaks has faded from the headlines due to a dearth of scoops and a blockade by credit card companies that has made donations to the site almost impossible.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm and Mark Hosenball in Washington DC; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)