For more than two months he has been hidden away in an embassy building in west London, shielded from public view and the clutches of the Metropolitan Police.

But yesterday WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange briefly emerged from self-imposed seclusion to thank his supporters - and sell himself to the world as the fearless victim of United States oppression rather than a man on the run from rape allegations.

In a carefully orchestrated appearance from a first-floor balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy building in Knightsbridge, Assange demanded that America refrain from prosecuting WikiLeaks staff, and repeatedly called for Bradley Manning, the alleged source of WikiLeaks' cache of US cables, to be released.

In a 10-minute speech that was heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on details of his future plans, Assange chose not to address the sexual assault claims by two Swedish women which sparked the court action leading to his decision to seek asylum in the South American country.


"I am here today because I cannot be there with you today," he told the hundreds of supporters and journalists watching across the street on a sweltering day in west London.

Some had wondered whether Assange would exploit the attention of the world's media to tempt the Metropolitan Police into an unsightly arrest, by stepping outside the door of the embassy. By seeking refuge in the embassy he broke the terms of his bail, and still faces extradition to Sweden.

Instead he used his balcony address to galvanise support and cast himself as a guardian of free speech.

He also seized the opportunity make a political point, as he appealed directly to US President Barack Obama to end what he called the "war on whistleblowers".

Assange said: "As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of all our societies. We must use this moment to articulate the choice that is before the Government of the United States of America.

"Will it return to and reaffirm the values, the revolutionary values it was founded on, or will it lurch off the precipice dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world, in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark?"

His speech may have been aimed at restoring his international reputation, but it also played well with the collection of supporters who had gathered to glimpse the self-styled human rights defender.

Earlier, Assange's lawyer Baltasar Garzon confirmed that his client was seeking a way to guarantee safe passage out of Britain after Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum.

Garzon said: "I have spoken to Julian Assange and I can tell you he is in fighting spirits and he is thankful to the people of Ecuador and especially to the President for granting asylum.

"Julian Assange has always fought for truth and justice and has defended human rights and continues to do so.

"He demands that WikiLeaks' and his own rights be respected. Julian Assange has instructed his lawyers to carry out a legal action in order to protect the rights of WikiLeaks, Julian himself and all those currently being investigated."

After Assange was granted asylum, the British Foreign Secretary refused to grant him safe passage out of the country, arguing that international asylum laws should not be used to harbour alleged criminals.

Assange was told he was liable to arrest for breaching his bail conditions should he leave the embassy building.

- Independent