Scotland Yard says it is withdrawing its 24-hour presence at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where the founder of the website WikiLeaks has been holed up since June 2012.
LONDON — Is now the time for Julian Assange to try to make a break for it?
The British government has spent more than $19 million over the past three years trying to make sure that Assange, founder of the website WikiLeaks, doesn’t escape its clutches. He has been holed up in the tiny Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012, a fugitive from arrest on allegations he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.
But authorities have apparently decided that the vigil is no longer worth it. Scotland Yard announced Monday that it was withdrawing its 24-hour presence at the embassy, in one of London’s toniest neighborhoods, near the famous Harrods department store.
Not that Assange — who maintains his innocence — isn’t still a wanted man.
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“The operation to arrest Julian Assange does, however, continue, and should he leave the embassy the (police) will make every effort to arrest him,” Scotland Yard said in a statement. But “it is no longer proportionate to commit officers to a permanent presence.”
It added that the decision had “not been taken lightly” and that detectives would continue to use “a number of overt and covert tactics” to keep tabs on their quarry.
Whether he’s an exemplar of patient fortitude or of contemptible cowardice, Assange, 44, has managed to frustrate the British and Swedish governments by immuring himself within the embassy, which is treated as Ecuadorean territory.
Scotland Yard has little to show for its diligence except a huge policing bill, as major budget cuts loom for the storied force. Its officers were powerless to lay a hand on Assange even when he appeared, Evita-like, on the embassy’s balcony, only a few feet above street level, to speak to supporters.
For their part, Swedish prosecutors have had to drop all but one of their investigations into Assange’s conduct with two women in 2010 because the statute of limitations on molestation allegations has run out; an allegation of rape remains outstanding.
Assange acknowledges having sex with the women in Stockholm on separate occasions but insists the encounters were consensual. He fled to the embassy after exhausting all legal avenues in Britain to avoid extradition to Sweden, which he fears will send him on to the U.S. to be tried for publishing a massive trove of classified diplomatic and military files.
The standoff has soured relations between Britain and Ecuador. After Scotland Yard’s announcement, the British government summoned the Ecuadorean ambassador Monday to express its frustration with the impasse over Assange. “Despite the efforts of many people, there is no imminent prospect of a diplomatic or legal resolution to this issue,” Scotland Yard said.