WikiLeaks founder walked into the embassy and asked for asylum under the United Nations human rights declaration.
The WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, sparking a new crisis in the tortured history of his extradition to Sweden.
Assange walked into the embassy in Knightsbridge and asked for asylum under the UN human rights declaration. He said: "I can confirm I arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy and sought diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum.
"This application has been passed to the ministry of foreign affairs in the capital Quito. I am grateful to the Ecuadorian ambassador and the government of Ecuador for considering my application."
The dramatic move follows a long-running legal bid by the whistleblower to halt his extradition to Sweden, where he faces sex crime allegations. Assange is currently on £240,000 police bail, and had been living with friends, a number of whom put together the bail payment.
An embassy statement said: "This afternoon Mr Julian Assange arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy seeking political asylum from the Ecuadorian government. We have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito. While the department assesses Mr Assange's application, Mr Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorian government."
"The decision to consider Mr Assange's application for protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden."
Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino also confirmed that the Australian had taken refuge at its embassy and that the country's government was weighing up the request. He said Assange had written to president Rafael Correa saying he was being persecuted and seeking asylum.
Assange, he said, had argued that "the authorities in his country will not defend his minimum guarantees in front of any government or ignore the obligation to protect a politically persecuted citizen".
He added that Assange had said he could not return to Australia as it would not block his extradition to "a foreign country that applies the death penalty for the crime of espionage and sedition", a reference to the United States.
WikiLeaks was behind the release of 250,000 secret US embassy cables which were leaked to the Guardian in 2011 and caused acute embarrassment to the US by revealing secretly-held attitudes of the country's global embassy staff.
The WikiLeaks founder has been in custody and on bail in the UK since autumn 2010. His bail conditions have varied over that time but for most of it they stipulated that he must stay at a country house in Suffolk owned by Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline club in west London, report to police daily and wear an electronic tag. Public figures who rallied to his cause included John Pilger, Jemima Khan and film-maker Ken Loach.
A message was posted on the WikiLeaks Twitter account, saying: "ALERT: Julian Assange has requested political asylum and is under the protection of the Ecuadorian embassy in London."
A message posted on the WikiLeaks Twitter account pointed out that Assange had been offered protection by Ecuador's leftist government as far back as November 2010. Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas said then that the country was open to giving him residence without any conditions. Last April, Ecuador announced the expulsion of US ambassador Heather Hodges, apparently in response to a 2009 diplomatic cable divulged by WikiLeaks in which the envoy accused the country's newly retired police chief of corruption.
The Swedish authorities want Assange to answer accusations of raping a woman and sexually molesting and coercing another in Stockholm in August 2010 while on a visit to give a lecture.
The UK Supreme Court decided on 30 May that Assange's extradition was lawful and could go ahead, but he was given time to consider the judgment. The 40-year-old says the sex was consensual and the allegations are politically motivated.
Last week the supreme court reaffirmed its rejection of Assange's appeal against his extradition, turning down an 11th hour request to reopen the case.
In a brief statement, the court said the application was "without merit and it is dismissed."
The supreme court case revolved around the question of whether a prosecutor constituted a "judicial authority" as the European arrest warrant specifies.
The court found by a majority of five to two against Assange, saying that the warrant was valid.
In its statement declining to reopen the case, the court said it had agreed unanimously that extradition proceedings should not begin for another two weeks.
Assange's marathon legal battle has played out in the glare of worldwide publicity and his court appearances have previously attracted a range of celebrity supporters and members of the public who back him.
He had been given until June 28th to lodge an appeal against the UK court decisions at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. His lawyers were believed to be considering their next move. Some legal commentators have doubted whether Assange would have strong grounds to take his appeal to the ECHR in Strasbourg. He may have decided on his dramatic switch in tactics having been discouraged about his chances of success in Europe's highest court.
The Ministry of Justice said that responsibility for handling his extradition rested with the Serious Organised crime Agency (SOCA) which deals with European Arrest Warrant requests. SOCA did not immediately reply to calls.