Russian diplomats have secretly discussed extracting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and escorting him out of the U.K. and beyond the reach of a potential U.S. extradition request, The Guardian reported Friday.
Citing four sources, The Guardian said Russians held secret talks in London last year with people close to the Australian-born WikiLeaks publisher on the subject of potentially facilitating his safe exit from the embassy, his residence since 2012.
One tentative plan involved smuggling Mr. Assange out of the embassy in a diplomatic vehicle on Christmas Eve and transporting him to another country, possibly Russia, where he stood a lesser risk of being extradited to the U.S. and tried on charges related to his WikiLeaks website, The Guardian reported.
Another plan considered involved shipping Mr. Assange on a boat to Ecuador, the newspaper reported.
“It is false that giving Julian Assange diplomatic status is news,” WikiLeaks responded through its Twitter account Friday. “It has been widely discussed for almost a year by Ecuador and the international bar and has nothing, whatsover [sic], to do with Russia.”
Mr. Assange, 47, was granted asylum by Ecuador within weeks of seeking refuge in its London embassy more than six years ago, though an outstanding arrest warrant issued by U.K. authorities and the related risk of being extradited abroad have kept him from exiting ever since.
Ecuador naturalized Mr. Assange in late 2017, but a subsequent attempt to grant him diplomatic status days later was quickly quashed by U.K. authorities.
According to The Guardian, the aborted Christmas Eve escape plan involved utilizing the diplomatic protection Mr. Assange would have been granted had the request been accepted. Ecuador could have given Mr. Assange diplomatic documents, and he could have then been picked up from the embassy by Russians and taken away in diplomatic vehicle, the report said.
The plan was ultimately deemed “too risky” and aborted, the report said.
Reacting to the report through its Twitter account, the Russian embassy in London called the story “another example of disinformation and fake news from the British media.”
Mr. Assange sought refuge from Ecuador amid being sought for questioning by Swedish prosecutors investigating allegations of sexual assault. Sweden dropped the probe in 2017, but a U.K. judge subsequently ruled that Mr. Assange breached related bail conditions by entering the embassy and should be arrested upon exiting.
WikiLeaks has published throngs of classified U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence community documents during the past decade, including Democratic Party documents in 2016 allegedly sourced by Russian state-sponsored hackers, according to U.S. federal intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Mr. Assange has not been charged publicly by U.S. prosecutors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously called his arrest a “priority.”