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WikiLeaks' Assange fears U.S., says will stay in embassy

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves from a window with Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino (R) at Ecuador's embassy in cent
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves from a window with Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino (R) at Ecuador's embassy in cent

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says he will not leave the sanctuary of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London even if Sweden stops pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he fears arrest on the order of the United States.

In an interview with Reuters and others to mark the first anniversary of taking refuge in the cramped diplomatic building, Assange said he remained hopeful he might be able to leave but offered little evidence to suggest he would be finding new living quarters anytime soon.

"I wouldn't say I wouldn't leave," he said. "(But) my lawyers have advised me I shouldn't leave the embassy because of the risk of arrest in relation to the risk of arrest and extradition to the United States."

When asked whether he would remain inside even if Sweden dropped the investigation against him, Assange said: "That's correct."

Assange chose his words carefully in the interview, which was conducted last Friday under embargo. In a wide-ranging discussion behind drawn white net curtains, Assange hailed Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency who made revelations about U.S. surveillance programs, as a hero.

He also railed against the United States, Britain and his native Australia and talked about his case with semi-legal expertise.

Assange, 41, fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy last June to avoid extradition to Sweden, which wants to question him about allegations of sexual assault and rape, which he denies.

He says he does not want to answer the allegations in person because he believes Sweden would hand him over to the U.S. authorities, who would try him for helping facilitate one of the largest information leaks in U.S. history.

WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of confidential U.S. documents on the Internet in 2010, embarrassing the United States and, according to some critics, putting its national security and people's lives at risk.

The court-martial of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of providing reams of classified documents to WikiLeaks, is under way in Maryland.

Ecuador has granted Assange political asylum, but Britain has made it clear he will be arrested if he tries to leave the building, which is heavily guarded by police.

As Assange spoke, at least four policemen ringed the embassy.

WEIGHING RISKS

Assange said he initially thought he might be holed up in the embassy, a diplomatic facility in one of London's swishiest areas, for up to two years. His original timetable was still a fair estimate, he told his interviewers.

When asked whether he was worried the situation could drag on much longer, he conceded it was a possibility.

"Left to its own devices that is a risk, left to fate that is a risk," he said. "There have been other cases, similar deadlocks for political refugees in embassies, that have gone on for dozens of years. However, we don't intend to leave the situation to fate."

Assange, who looked pale, complained of a lack of sunlight, saying there was a risk people in his circumstances could develop rickets.

He said he worked 17-hour days, exercised to try to keep healthy and currently was working on a song about "the new politics that has come about as a result of the Internet and media distortion" with a popular Latin American musical group.

Assange said he never used email but had others read it for him instead.

Casually dressed in jeans, an open-necked blue shirt and athletic shoes, Assange nursed a cup of tea as he spoke, becoming animated when it was suggested he had time on his hands to think about his fate.

"Where do people get this crazy idea I have time on my hands just because I'm stuck," he said. "It takes more time to do things if you're in an embassy, not less."

He spoke enthusiastically about his political ambitions in Australia, whose government he said was "perverted," and of the popularity of the WikiLeaks political party there.

But it was his own case and legal predicament that Assange circled back to time and time again.

It had become a "matter of prestige" for the governments concerned, he said, and had developed into a geopolitical standoff that he believed was politically motivated.

"It remains the case that it is highly unlikely that Sweden or the United Kingdom will ever publicly say no to the United States in this matter," he told his interviewers.

But he said he still held out some hope.

"Like most matters of international prestige, solutions are found which appear to be technical or enforced by a third party such as an international court," Assange said. "I expect that will happen in this matter also."

His own lawyers and the Ecuadorean government had concluded a legal challenge could be mounted against Britain in the International Court of Justice over his case, he said, but he had decided not to do so for now because it "could take years".

Talks between Britain and Ecuador on Monday about Assange's fate ended with no breakthrough, though both countries agreed to establish a working group to try to resolve the standoff.

When asked whether he had any regrets Assange said simply:

"Strategically it's been ... exactly what I had hoped for."

(Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Heavens)

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