- Associated Press - Thursday, August 16, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Police scuffled with supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, intensifying the drama surrounding the Australian ex-hacker as Britain weighed what to do if Ecuador grants him asylum or lets him to stay in its London embassy indefinitely.

Police arrested three of Assange’s supporters after they refused to move from the small embassy where Assange has been holed up since June 19. Assange fled to the diplomatic post in a bid to keep the U.K. from extraditing him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes.

WikiLeaks and Assange shot to prominence after releasing a massive trove of U.S. secret documents, moves which have outraged Americans and led to calls from U.S. politicians to have him hunted down like a terrorist.

Assange’s supporters fear the Swedish extradition effort is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial in the United States. Swedish officials _ and the alleged victims _ have denied that the extradition bid is politically-motivated.

Ecuador allowed the 41-year-old to take refuge in its embassy after Assange interviewed its president for his television show on Russia’s English-language broadcaster, RT. Ecuadorean officials are expected to announce a decision over his asylum bid later Thursday.

Britain says it has a legal duty to extradite Assange, but it has caused a diplomatic storm with what Ecuador calls a threat to raid the embassy and arrest him.

Britain’s Foreign Office denied making any threat, but a U.K. letter released Thursday made clear that a 1987 act would allow the government to revoke the Ecuadorean mission’s diplomatic status.

“You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. _ the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act _ which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy,” the letter said.

“We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange’s presence on your premises, this route is open to us.”

The warning outraged supporters, a small group of whom flocked to the embassy in defense of Assange.

“I’m here to support freedom of speech, justice, and to support Julian Assange because he is a champion of all of these values,” said Portuguese activist Pedro Lima, 35, who was among some 20 people protesting outside the red Edwardian apartment block down the street from London’s famous Harrods department store.

The atmosphere was mostly peaceful, but at one point several people were dragged away from the embassy after refusing police orders to move across the street.