London/Quito: Ecuador on Thursday granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, setting stage for an unprecedented diplomatic stand-off with the UK, which has threatened to extradite him to Sweden come what may.
Two months after he dramatically sought refuge in its embassy here to evade extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, Ecuador`s leftist government said it had decided to take Assange under its wing over fears that he might eventually be sent to the US to face "military courts".
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said at a news conference in the Ecuador capital that Sweden, Britain and the US had failed to provide guarantees that the 41-year-old Australian will not be extradited to the US from Sweden.
"The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange," he said.
Following the announcement, Britain said it was a "disappointing" decision but insisted London was under "obligation" to extradite the whistleblower to Sweden.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said tonight Britain will not provide Assange a safe passage but admitted that there cannot be a time limit to resolve the imbroglio, indicating that the diplomatic stand-off may last for a long time.
Hague said Britain remained determined to carry out its legal obligation to extradite Assange.
"This could go on for some considerable time... We will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. The UK does not recognise the principle of diplomatic asylum".
A Foreign Office spokeswoman had made it earlier clear that getting an asylum was not an end to Assange`s woes, saying: "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government`s decision this afternoon does not change that".
Earlier in the day, Britain said it had powers under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, 1987, to withdraw the embassy`s diplomatic status and then enter the building to arrest Assange and extradite him to Sweden.
Ecuador had said that Britian was threatening to "assault our embassy" if Assange was not handed over.
An unprecedented diplomatic row has arisen from Ecuador`s decision as Assange remains on British police`s radar whose personnel are positioned right outside the embassy to arrest him as soon as he steps out.
Assange, who has ruffled many feathers by publishing classified diplomatic correspondence of the United States and other countries, expressed his delight after an angry Patino announced the decision on his asylum application.
"It is a significant victory for myself, and my people. Things will probably get more stressful now," he said, as supporters debated ways in which he could leave the embassy and fly to Ecuador without being arrested.
Experts said there were virtually no precedents to such a diplomatic impasse, but cited the case of a Hungarian priest who stayed in the US embassy in Budapest for nearly 15 years following the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
The Foreign Office said: "We are disappointed by Ecuador`s foreign minister. We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act".
"Under our law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal UK authorities are under binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden".
The Foreign Office said it was "still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution", and added that throughout it had drawn Ecuador`s attention to relevant provisions of British law.
Earlier, a number of Assange`s supporters gathered outside the embassy this morning and shouted slogans in support of Ecuador and Assange. Three persons were arrested this morning in a scuffle between the police and Assange`s supporters.
WikiLeaks condemned "in strongest possible terms the UK`s resort to intimidation", and added: "Any transgression against the sanctity of the embassy is a unilateral and shameful act, and a violation of the Vienna Convention, which protects embassies worldwide".