- Associated Press - Saturday, August 21, 2010

STOCKHOLM (AP) - The founder of WikiLeaks was accused of rape in a Swedish arrest warrant Saturday that turned the spotlight onto the former hacker who’s infuriated governments with his self-proclaimed mission to make secrets public.

The accusation was labeled a dirty trick by Julian Assange and his group, who are preparing to release a fresh batch of classified U.S. documents from the Afghan war.

Swedish prosecutors urged Assange _ a nomadic 39-year-old Australian whose whereabouts were unclear _ to turn himself in to police to face questioning in one case involving suspicions of rape and another based on an accusation of molestation.

They issued a warrant for his arrest, a move that doesn’t necessarily mean that criminal charges will be filed. Investigators want him in custody because they believe there is a risk he will obstruct the probe by destroying evidence, said Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Prosecution Authority.

“The next step is that we interrogate him,” she said. “Then we’ll see what happens.”

Assange has no permanent address and travels frequently _ jumping from one friend’s place to the next. He disappears from public view for months at a time, only to reappear in the full glare of the cameras at packed news conferences to discuss his site’s latest disclosure.

He was in Sweden last week seeking legal protection for the whistle-blower website, which angered the Obama administration for publishing thousands of leaked documents about U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rosander didn’t know whether Assange was still in Sweden, but said authorities had not issued an international arrest warrant.

Assange dismissed the rape allegations in a statement on WikiLeaks‘ Twitter page, saying “the charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing.”

The first files in its “Afghan War Diary” revealed classified military documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. Assange said Wednesday that WikiLeaks plans to release a new batch of 15,000 documents from the Afghan war within weeks.

The Pentagon says the information could risk the lives of U.S. troops and their Afghan helpers and have demanded WikiLeaks return all leaked documents and remove them from the Internet.

On its official blog, WikiLeaks appeared to suggest that that work would go on despite the allegations against Assange.

“While Julian is focusing on his defenses and clearing his name, WikiLeaks will be continuing its regular operations,” said a statement signed by “The WikiLeaks team.”

Little is known about Assange’s private life _ he declined to talk about his background at a news conference in Stockholm a week ago. Equally secretive is the small team behind WikiLeaks, reportedly just a half-dozen people and casual volunteers who offer their services as needed.

A WikiLeaks spokesman, who says he goes by the name Daniel Schmitt in order to protect his identity, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Iceland that the “extremely serious allegations” came as a complete surprise and that efforts to find lawyers for Assange are under way.

Schmitt said he assumed Assange was still in Sweden and would contact authorities there.

“I didn’t ask him but I can’t imagine that anybody would try to run away in such a situation,” he said.

Schmitt said he has worked closely with Assange over the past three years and cannot imagine the allegations to be true.

“But I think he’s intelligent enough to know that he now has to face this,” Schmitt told the AP.

Apart from the comment from Assange, WikiLeaks‘ Twitter page had a link to an article in Swedish tabloid Expressen, which first reported the allegations.

“We were warned to expect ‘dirty tricks.’ Now we have the first one,” it said.

“Expressen is a tabloid; No one here has been contacted by Swedish police. Needless to say this will prove hugely distracting,” said another posting.

Assange was in Sweden last week partly to apply for a publishing certificate to make sure the website, which has servers in Sweden, can take full advantage of Swedish laws protecting whistle-blowers.

He also spoke at a seminar hosted by the Christian faction of the opposition Social Democratic party and announced he would write bimonthly columns for a left-wing Swedish newspaper.

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Associated Press Writer Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.