QUITO, Ecuador – In the two months since Julian Assange ducked into Ecuador's London embassy to seek political asylum, Rafael Correa has been consistently deferential to Britain while insisting on his right to protect a free speech advocate facing persecution.
Asked earlier this week if he felt solidarity with the Wikileaks founder, Ecuador's leftist president told a TV interviewer "of course, but we also feel solidarity for England and for the English and international law."
The decision on Assange's petition, which his government said it would announce Thursday, would come only after careful and lengthy scrutiny of the law and consultations with the governments involved, Correa insisted. And after London's Olympics fest was over.
On Wednesday, the cordiality ended.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino accused Britain of threatening to "assault our embassy" if Assange was not handed over.
A storming of Ecuador's embassy would be interpreted as "hostile and intolerable and, as well, an attempt on our sovereignty which would oblige us to respond with the greatest diplomatic force," he said.
London had warned Ecuador in writing earlier in the day that a 1987 British law permits it to revoke the diplomatic status of a building if the foreign power occupying it "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post." Its Foreign Office said later in statement that it is Britain's "obligation to extradite Mr. Assange."
The former Australian hacker who incensed U.S. government officials by publishing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables and Iraq and Afghan war dispatches in 2010, took refuge in the embassy on June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden. He faces questioning there for alleged sexual misconduct and had exhausted all appeals after a 17-month legal battle.
As news broke of the British warning on Wednesday, police were seen reinforcing Scotland Yard's presence at the embassy, which occupies a first-floor apartment in a tony London neighborhood near the Harrods department store.
A small group of Assange supporters later gathered outside.
In statement, WikiLeaks accused Britain of trying to bully Ecuador into denying Assange asylum.
"A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide," it said.
As Thursday dawned in London, there was no sign police might try to enter the embassy.
British officials have vowed not to grant Assange safe passage out of their country. They say they will arrest him the moment he steps foot outside the embassy.
But they had not publicly suggested they might strip the embassy of its diplomatic inviolability.
The AP found no record of that law ever being used to justify forcible entry into an embassy. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation.
Asked by The Associated Press about Patino's characterization of Britain's warning, a Foreign Office official said via email that the letter "was not a threat" and was intended to clarify "all aspects of British law that Ecuador should be aware of."
The official would not be identified by name, citing policy.
The Foreign Office statement that mentioned the government's invoking of the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act also stated: "We are still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution."
Patino said the missive including the veiled threat was delivered to his country's Foreign Ministry in writing and verbally to its ambassador in London on Wednesday.
The Foreign Office statement did not elaborate on Britain's intentions if Assange were to be granted asylum by Ecuador.
Correa, a U.S. and European-trained economist who won the presidency in December 2006 in his first bid for elected office, has called Assange a beacon of free speech but has used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition media at home.
WikiLeaks has strengthened him politically against the United States, whose influence he has sought to diminish in Latin America as he deepens commercial ties with countries including China, which now buys most of Ecuador's oil, and pushes a populist agenda.
One cable published by Wikileaks prompted Correa to expel a U.S. ambassador in 2010 for alleging a former Ecuadorean police chief was corrupt and suggesting Correa had looked the other way.
Assange says the Swedish charges against him are trumped up, and his supporters say they believe the U.S. has secretly indicted him and would extradite him from Sweden.
Correa has said Assange could face the death penalty in the United States and for that reason he considers the asylum request a question of political persecution.
Analysts in Ecuador expressed doubts Wednesday that Britain would raid the embassy.
Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito's FLACSO university said Britain "has a long establish tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions," which under international law are considered sovereign territory.
A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, said he believed that if asylum were granted "Mr. Assange could be in the embassy for a long time."
Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.