The diplomatic row between the UK and Ecuador over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has deepened after the Foreign Office said the Government would seek to extradite him even if he is granted political asylum by the South American nation.
The Ecuadorian authorities have accused the Government of threatening to enter its embassy in London to seize Mr Assange, who faces sexual assault charges in Sweden.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the UK had a legal duty to extradite Mr Assange and that would not change if he was granted political asylum.
She said: “It does not change our position. Our legal position is not changing at all.
“Our position is that we have a duty to extradite him, even if he is granted political asylum.”
A decision by the Ecuadorian government on whether to grant Mr Assange asylum is expected later.
A handful of protesters gathered outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London’s upmarket
Knightsbridge area, where police were keeping watch.
They arrived following the release by Ecuador’s minister for foreign affairs, Ricardo Patino, of details of a letter from a UK official which he claimed amounted to a threat to “attack” the mission in London.
The letter said: “You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy.
“We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”
The dramatic development came two months after Mr Assange suddenly walked into the Ecuadorian embassy in a bid to avoid being extradited to Sweden.
The Foreign Office said the 1987 law permits the revocation of 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”.
Under international law, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation.
A source said they understood that the legal process under which Mr Assange could be arrested at the embassy would take seven days to implement.
Mr Patino said yesterday: “The government of Ecuador is considering a request for asylum and has carried out diplomatic talks with the governments of the United Kingdom and Sweden.
“However, today we received from the United Kingdom a written threat that they could attack our embassy in London if Ecuador does not give up Julian Assange.
“Ecuador, as a state that respects rights and justice and is a democratic and peaceful nation state, rejects in the strongest possible terms the explicit threat of the British official communication.
“This is unbecoming of a democratic, civilised and law-abiding state. If this conduct persists, Ecuador will take appropriate responses in accordance with international law.
“If the measures announced in the British official communication materialise, they will be interpreted by Ecuador as a hostile and intolerable act and also as an attack on our sovereignty, which would require us to respond with greater diplomatic force.
“Such actions would be a blatant disregard of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and of the rules of international law of the past four centuries.
“It would be a dangerous precedent because it would open the door to the violation of embassies as a declared sovereign space.”
Mr Patino said the situation affected all American states, so the government of Ecuador will request the convening of a meeting of ministers from across the region.
He added: “The protection that Ecuador offers Mr Assange is based on universal principles and our respect for human rights and no threats of force or unilateral action towards our country will see us waive these principles.”
An Ecuadorian government spokesman said yesterday: “We are deeply shocked by the British Government’s threats against the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian embassy and their suggestion that they may forcibly enter the embassy.
“This a clear breach of international law and the protocols set out in the Vienna Convention.
“Throughout the last 56 days Mr Julian Assange has been in the embassy, the Ecuadorian government has acted honourably in all our attempts to seek a resolution to the situation.
“This stands in stark contrast to the escalation of the British Government today with their threats to break down the door of the Ecuadorian embassy.
“Instead of threatening violence against the Ecuadorian embassy, the British Government should use its energy to find a peaceful resolution to this situation which we are aiming to achieve.”
The letter to Ecuador added: “We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”
Mr Assange denies the allegations against him, but fears he will be sent to the United States if he goes to Sweden.
An offer to the Swedish authorities by Ecuador for investigators to interview Mr Assange inside the London embassy was rejected.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman denied a threat was being made and added: “We are still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution.”
The protesters outside the embassy warned against any attempt by the UK authorities to enter the building.
Paul Milligan, 19, from Kentish Town, north London, said: “I heard about this at 1am and walked here to protest.
“If Britain is essentially about to invade Ecuador, then I want to have a say about that.
“If they load him in a police van to try to bring him out, I intend to sit in front of the van and obstruct it in any way I can.
“The point about Julian Assange is that he didn’t doctor any of the materials - he released the documents and said to the world ’This is the truth, have a look at it and see what you think’.
“The idea that somebody can be snatched from the Ecuadorian embassy in London by British police, and sent to Sweden then possibly America, is ludicrous.”
Farhan Rasheed, 42, a historian, from Norbury, south London, said: “I’m here on the basis that you have to respect the Vienna Convention. If we go against other people’s diplomatic immunity, that puts our own diplomats at risk around the world. It would be an own-goal.”
Police kept the pathway outside the embassy clear and arrested two protesters.
A number of officers seized a man, who was led away shouting: “You are about to start a war with Ecuador” and “You can’t arrest Julian Assange.”
Shortly afterwards another man was taken away to a police van, with fellow protesters shouting: “What are you arresting him for?”