As Britain and Ecuador remain locked in a diplomatic standoff over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the government in Quito made a public push to protect its London embassy.
Ecuador said Wednesday that Britain had threatened to storm its embassy to arrest Assange, who is being sought for questioning by Sweden on allegations of sexual assault. Ecuador has granted the activist political asylum, but Britain says it will not guarantee him safe passage out of the country. That leaves Assange marooned in the embassy, unable to leave despite winning asylum.
The British letter to Ecuador referenced a little-known law, saying, "You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. — the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act — which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the embassy."
The South American country has sought to marshal other nations across the Americas to insist that its embassy not be violated, calling a council meeting Friday of the Organization of American States.
At the meeting, Britain denied it had threatened Ecuador, saying Ecuador had aired a private note that had been misunderstood out of context.
"Allegations that the United Kingdom was threatening Ecuador and was about to storm the embassy are without foundation," the British observer to the group told the council.
The United States argued that the matter should be handled between Ecuador and Britain. When Ecuador called for a meeting of regional foreign ministers next week, the U.S. was one of just three countries in the OAS that voted against it; 23 others, including Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, voted to convene the meeting next Friday. Five countries abstained from the vote.
Though Latin American countries have bristled at the reported threat, it is unclear how far they will go in backing up Ecuador if its confrontation with Britain and Sweden escalates, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
"There may be questions raised or criticisms of Britain threatening to enter the embassy, but I don’t think they’d be inclined to take this very far," Shifter said. "As much as [Ecuadorean President Rafael] Correa may be trying to position himself as a regional leader, I don’t think most governments see him that way."
Protecting embassies has implications for asylum within the Americas as well, where there are similar cases. A Bolivian senator has been holing up in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz for months after getting Brazilian asylum but not being guaranteed safe passage out of the country by Bolivia.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: British police officers stand guard outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on Thursday. Credit: Alastair Grant / Associated Press