Ecuador on Thursday granted asylum to Julian Assange, holed up since late June at the Andean nation's embassy in London, and said it expected the British government to allow the WikiLeaks founder to travel to Quito.

The Australian citizen sought refuge at the Ecuadorian mission after losing a long battle in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct.

Assange, who denies the accusations, fears that once he is in Swedish custody, U.S. prosecutors will indict him for espionage and Washington will pressure Stockholm into handing him over.

Ecuador's decision rests on international law and was motivated by fear that Assange's life would be at risk if he were ultimately sent to the United States, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told a press conference in Quito.

Politicians and pundits in the United States called for Assange to be prosecuted - or even assassinated - after WikiLeaks disseminated thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables as well as a video that showed an American military helicopter crew killing a Reuters photographer and several other civilians in Iraq.

Evidence available to the Ecuadorian government indicates that if Assange were extradited to the United States, "he would not receive a fair trial, he could be tried by special or military courts," Patiño said Thursday.

The foreign minister also cited the Australian government's failure to assist or defend its citizen.

Patiño expressed confidence that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron would issue a safe-conduct for Assange to leave the Ecuadorian mission and board a plane for Quito.

In the meantime, the foreign minister said, Assange "will continue being protected" at the embassy.

"I am grateful to the Ecuadorian people, President Rafael Correa and his government. It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation," Assange said after learning his asylum request was granted.

"Regrettable" was how Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office described Quito's decision.

"British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," an FCO spokesman said. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorean government's decision this afternoon does not change that."

Patiño renewed on Thursday his rejection of what he characterized as an "explicit threat" from British authorities to enter the Ecuadorian mission by force and arrest Assange.

Ambassador Ana Alban was officially advised on Wednesday that British authorities "could assault" the diplomatic mission if Assange does not surrender to them, the foreign minister said.

In response to that warning and to an "unjustified increase in British police personnel" outside the building that houses the mission, Ecuador has taken some additional security measures, Patiño said.

He added that Ecuador expects an international response to the British threats and said Organization of American States chief Jose Miguel Insulza had offered to convene an extraordinary OAS General Assembly to address this "delicate matter."

"Ecuador is a free and democratic state, not subject to any kind of external tutelage," Patiño said. EFE