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SIEGE MENTALITY: The WikiLeaks founder's saga is being played out in courts and on TV, write John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya
OVER the decades, London has known other diplomatic sieges that ended dramatically. There was the one at the Iranian embassy in 1980, when special forces killed five gunmen who had thrown a dead hostage into the street.
That was followed by a stand-off at the Libyan embassy in 1984, when a member of the embassy's staff fired on protesters from an upper floor, killing a policewoman from Scotland Yard.
And now, there is one at the Ecuadorian embassy, a sanctuary for the past nine weeks for fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and, since last Thursday, his place of asylum, as granted by Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa.
Unlike those earlier sieges, this one, many believe, could last months, even years.
Correa presented his move as a pre-emptive strike against United States plans to ensnare the Australian-born Assange and transport him for trial in the US on espionage charges for his role in publishing tens of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic documents over the past two years.
If US officials have made such preparations, they have studiously avoided disclosing them.
For Britain, the standoff is the culmination of a protracted saga that has embroiled Assange in an extradition case involving allegations of sexual abuse by two Swedish women -- allegations Assange has denied -- and a British Supreme Court ruling ordering that Assange be placed on a plane to Stockholm to face questioning in the affair.
The catch for Assange is that Ecuador's granting of asylum appears to have left him no closer to any long-term relief from his legal problems, as he remains confined to the embassy's second-story suite of rooms in a central London apartment block.
Sanctuary in Quito, Ecuador's capital, is 9,000km away, as reachable for Assange, in practical terms, as Mars.
Outside the apartment block, covering all possible escape routes front and back, and at strategic points inside, including the lobby, staircase and elevator access areas, a squad of about 50 Scotland Yard police officers stand ready to arrest Assange if he ventures out of the embassy and its cocoon of diplomatic immunity.
More police officers wait in two vans nearby, along with a large armoured transporter of the kind used to carry prisoners.
British newspapers, quoting Scotland Yard, say the watch is costing US$80,000 (RM250,000) a day, at a time when the police force is under orders to cut 20 per cent of its budget as part of the government's austerity drive.
Officials say those expenses are only part of the overall bill incurred in the Assange case, which has included 18 months of court hearings and has cost taxpayers millions.
As much as a legal battle, it has become a soap opera, with Assange cast as the hero or villain, depending on political predilections.
At the embassy, television cameras stand arrayed behind crowd-control fencing, with satellite trucks alongside.
Protesters from the Assange camp occupy the doorsteps of some of the most expensive homes in the upscale Knightsbridge district, smoking cigarettes and discussing the finer points of diplomatic law.
Not all opinion is running in favour of the WikiLeaks founder. Sweden has held to its demand that Assange be extradited to face his accusers there, and the lawyer for the two women involved, Claes Borgstrom, calling Assange "a coward", has said he and his supporters appear to have only contempt for the rights of his accusers.
The distancing has spread to the wealthy supporters who put up the bail of US$375,000 that was forfeited when Assange fled to the embassy. One of those, rights activist and socialite Jemima Khan, who pledged US$31,500, said after Ecuador granted him asylum that she had changed her mind and believed that Assange should go to Sweden after all to answer the allegations against him.
For now, Ecuador and Britain have said they favour negotiations, but it is hard to see where the room for compromise lies.
Britain has abandoned earlier threats to storm the embassy, and Assange appears to be planning on running WikiLeaks from his diplomatic aerie, including plans for a personal update via a Skype broadcast.
He took to the balcony of the embassy on Sunday to condemn the US government and cast himself as one of the world's most persecuted whistle-blowers.
"I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks," Assange said, reading from a statement. "The United States must dissolve its FBI investigation. The United States must vow that it will not seek to prosecute our staff or our supporters."
British newspapers and broadcasters have competed in speculations as to how the siege will end. Some have ventured to the wilder shores of possibility, including having Assange flying off the apartment block's roof with a jetpack, dressing as a woman to sneak past the police or climbing into a diplomatic bag.
The last of these has a vexed history in Britain, dating to the failed bid by Nigerian diplomats in 1984 to smuggle one of their countrymen back to Nigeria, drugged and bound in a packing case that was intercepted at the last moment at Stansted Airport outside London.
According to The Daily Mail, it is a caper Scotland Yard has factored in. The newspaper reported on Friday that police officers outside the embassy had orders to use a heat probe on all large boxes leaving the mission. The paper quoted an unnamed "security source" as saying: "You could prod it, and if it says 'ouch' in an Australian accent, you can stop it going further." NYT