LONDON – Embattled WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange took refuge Tuesday in Ecuador's embassy in London and is seeking political asylum, his organization and the South American nation said.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the leftist government of President Rafael Correa was weighing the request. He did not indicate when a decision might be made.
The move comes less than a week after Britain's Supreme Court rejected Assange's bid to reopen his attempts to block extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning after two women accused him of sexual misconduct during a visit to the country in mid-2010. He denies the allegations.
"I am grateful to the Ecuadorian ambassador and the government of Ecuador for considering my application," Assange said in a brief statement.
WikiLeaks confirmed its leader's request for political asylum on its Twitter account, but calls, texts, and emails seeking further comment from Assange and other WikiLeaks members weren't immediately answered.
Ecuador's mission in London said Assange will "remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorian government," while his application is considered.
"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," the embassy statement added.
Assange's legal struggle to stay in Britain has dragged on for the better part of two years, clouding his website's work exposing the world's secrets.
Patino told a news conference in Quito that Assange had written to Correa, a U.S.- and European-trained economist who is closer to Venezuela than the United States, saying he was being persecuted and asking for asylum.
He said that Assange, who is Australian, had argued that "the authorities in his country will not defend his minimum guarantees before any government or ignore the obligation to protect a politically persecuted citizen."
Assange said it was impossible for him to return to his homeland because it would not protect him from being extradited to "a foreign country that applies the death penalty for the crime of espionage and sedition," Patino said in a reference to the United States.
Assange, 40, claims the U.S. has secretly indicted him for divulging American secrets and will act on the indictment if Sweden succeeds in extraditing him from Britain.
In the letter, he accused Swedish officials of "openly attacking me" and investigating him for political crimes, according to Patino, who did not take questions from reporters.
The foreign minister said his country would consider the asylum request "taking into account the respect for the norms and principles of international law as well as Ecuador's policy of protecting human rights."
Earlier this year, Assange launched a television talk show built around the theme of "the world tomorrow." Among other guests, he interviewed Correa and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.
Assange received offers of asylum during each of those sessions, which were broadcast on the Russia Today channel, according to a woman who was present during the shows and familiar with the offers. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
It was not immediately clear if the offers came directly from the presidents themselves, although Marzouki told Assange during the show: "If you ever have some problems you'll be welcome in Tunisia."
Correa has himself been assailed by human rights and press freedom activists for using Ecuador's criminal libel law in sympathetic courts against journalists from the country's biggest newspaper, El Universo, who he says represent oligarchists seeking his ouster. This month, he told his Cabinet ministers not to grant interviews to members of privately owned media.
Correa's government has also been leading a campaign by leftist Latin American nations that critics say aims to weaken the powers of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In November 2010, Ecuador's deputy foreign minister said the country was offering residency to Assange. However, Correa told reporters the following day that neither he nor Patino had approved the offer and that it would need to be studied.
Assange and Wikileaks shot to international prominence in 2010 with the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents including diplomatic cables and a hard-to-watch video that showed U.S. forces gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and journalists whom they had mistaken for insurgents.
Australian authorities have investigated WikiLeaks' conduct, but concluded that Assange broke no Australian law.
Last month, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her country could not protect Assange, a former computer hacker, from other countries' justice systems. Her foreign minister, Bob Carr, said Washington had said nothing to indicate an indictment was planned there.
Solano reported from Quito, Ecuador. Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.