London – Ecuador will grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the country's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said in a televised speech Thursday.
That doesn't mean the controversial freedom-of-information activist will manage to escape arrest and extradition, however.
The British government called the decision "regrettable," and said Wednesday it has the legal authority to enter Ecuador's embassy in London and arrest Assange, even though the Rafael Correa administration grants him political asylum.
The U.K. and Ecuador are at loggerheads over a letter in which the Latin American nation claims Britain threatened to "assault our embassy" if the WikiLeaks founder is not handed over. Britain's Foreign Office insists the letter was not a threat, saying that British diplomats were merely drawing the Ecuadoreans' attention to laws which allow London to strip a renegade foreign mission of a diplomatic status.
Britain's Foreign Office initially refused to release the letter to reporters, but has now published its translation of the note.
"We are aware, and surprised by media reports in the last 24 hours, that Ecuador is about to take a decision and proposes to grant asylum to Mr. Assange," the note says. "We must be absolutely clear this means that should we receive a request for safe passage for Mr. Assange, after granting asylum, this would be refused, in line with our legal obligations."
The letter goes on to say that the British government reserves the authority to enter the embassy and arrest Assange.
"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. We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange's presence on your premises, this route is open to us."
Scotland Yard says it has arrested a handful of people outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London as supporters gather to defend Assange.
A police spokesman said three people have been arrested. He didn't give a reason, but an Associated Press reporter at the scene saw several people being dragged away from the embassy after refusing police orders to move across the street Thursday.
Police and protesters converged on the embassy in the upscale Knightsbridge neighborhood of London Wednesday night after the Ecuadorean government accused Britain of threatening to "assault" the mission if Assange weren't handed over.
Assange has been holed up in the building since June 19 in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted over allegations of sexual misconduct.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.