LONDON – Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged Thursday there was no swift end in sight to the diplomatic standoff with Ecuador over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Assange, who is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sex crimes allegations, has been sheltering inside Ecuador's Embassy in London — beyond the reach of British law enforcement — since June 19. Though he has been offered asylum by the Latin American nation, Assange will be arrested if he sets foot outside the mission.
Hague said that in talks Wednesday in London with Ecuador's Vice President Lenin Moreno, he sought to defuse concern in Quito that the U.K. could revoke the embassy's diplomatic status, allowing police to enter the premises and detain Assange.
Ecuadorean officials were angered after Britain sent their government a clumsy message in which it said it could potentially use a little-known law to strip the embassy of protections usually offered to foreign diplomatic premises.
Hague insisted Britain had not been issuing a threat, but said he had told Moreno that the U.K. was "legally bound" to send Assange to Sweden and had no other option.
"This may go on for a long time, so we are not making a threat against the embassy of Ecuador. We agreed yesterday our officials would continue to talk about finding a solution," Hague told BBC radio Thursday.
Britain and Ecuador also are at odds over Quito's decision to offer Assange diplomatic asylum, a type of refuge that is common in Latin and South America but is not recognized in the U.K.
"Given Ecuador's position on what they call diplomatic asylum and our very clear legal position, such a solution is not in sight at the moment," Hague said, speaking from New York.
Assange, a 41-year-old Australian citizen, shot to international prominence in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website began publishing its huge cache of American secrets, including 250,000 U.S. Embassy cables that highlighted sometimes embarrassing backroom dealings.
Two women accused Assange of sex offenses during a visit to Sweden soon after WikiLeaks made the disclosures. Assange insists the sex with the women was consensual and denies wrongdoing, but he has fought off efforts to return him to Sweden for questioning for two years.
Assange and his supporters claim the Swedish case is the first move of a Washington-constructed plot to have him stand trial in the U.S., a claim that Sweden disputes.
In a public statement earlier this month from the embassy's balcony, Assange urged the U.S. to "renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks."