WASHINGTON — The United States on Monday denied Julian Assange's "wild assertions" that it has launched a witch-hunt for the WikiLeaks founder, who was holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition.
The Australian-born hacktivist rallied supporters Sunday from the balcony of the embassy, accusing the United States of pursuing him after his website angered Washington by publishing a trove of sensitive diplomatic cables.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States had nothing to do with efforts by Britain to extradite Assange, who is wanted for questioning by Sweden on allegations of rape and molestation.
"He is making all kinds of wild assertions about us when in fact his issue with the government of the United Kingdom has to do with whether he's going to face justice in Sweden for something that has nothing to do with WikiLeaks, it has to do with charges of sexual misconduct," Nuland told reporters.
"He is clearly trying to deflect attention away from the real issue, which is whether he's going to face justice in Sweden," she told reporters.
"That case has nothing to do with us. It's a matter between the UK, Sweden and now Ecuador has inserted itself," she said.
Nuland, in an exchange with reporters, later clarified that Assange was not charged in Sweden but was wanted for questioning. Two female WikiLeaks volunteers in Sweden have accused Assange of the sexual misconduct.
Assange says that the accusations are politically motivated and that he would eventually be extradited to the United States. He says the sex was consensual.
"I ask President (Barack) Obama to do the right thing -- the United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks," the 41-year-old Australian told some 200 supporters and hordes of journalists from the embassy balcony.
Assange has spent two months inside the embassy, which occupies a small part of a red-brick mansion block in an upscale section of London. British authorities could arrest him if he steps outside.
Nuland, in line with previous US statements, declined comment on the scope of US prosecution over WikiLeaks. A military court is trying Bradley Manning, a young soldier suspected of leaking the documents to the activist website.
Assange called for the United States to release Manning, saying he was being treated harshly in detention.
The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Ernesto Mendez, in March said that Manning had been subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading" conditions including prolonged detention. A previous State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, resigned last year after criticizing Manning's treatment.
WikiLeaks angered the United States by releasing tens of thousands of classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as often unflattering reports of US diplomats' views on world leaders.
Ecuador's left-leaning president, Rafael Correa, has offered asylum to Assange, citing the possibility of US prosecution. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the South American nation hoped to resolve the case through dialogue.
"Heading to the International Court of Justice in The Hague would be the path to take after that," Patino told Ecuadoran TV network Gama.
Foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations, meeting in Ecuador's biggest city Guayaquil, expressed "solidarity" Sunday with the decision to grant asylum.
The nations also declared support for Quito over the "threat of violation of its diplomatic mission," a reference to Britain highlighting an obscure 1987 law under which its police could enter the embassy and extract Assange.
Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said Britain was "obliged" to carry out the extradition to Sweden after Assange exhausted all appeal options.
"It is our intention to carry out that obligation," the spokesman said.
"We will continue talking to the Ecuadoran government and others to try to find a diplomatic solution," he said.
The spokesman did not refer directly to the speech by Assange, who credited public support with preventing a raid on the embassy and said he heard police "swarming up into the building through its internal fire escape" on Saturday.
A handful of protesters have camped outside of Britain's consulate in New York, holding banners such as "Telling the truth is not reason."
"We plan on staying until Julian Assange gets out of the embassy," said 23-year-old activist Adam Peck.