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Ecuador fears for Assange's health, seeks UK safe passage

By Steve Gutterman and Maria Golovnina

MOSCOW/LONDON (Reuters) - Ecuador is worried about the health of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and has asked Britain to guarantee him safe passage from its London embassy to hospital if he needs medical treatment, a senior Ecuadorean diplomat said in Moscow.

Assange, an Australian, has been holed up inside Ecuador's embassy in central London since June to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations.

British authorities say Assange will be arrested if he sets foot outside the embassy. The apartment building, located just behind London's famed Harrods department store, is under constant police surveillance.

"Assange has grown noticeably thinner, and we are very concerned about his health," Voice of Russia radio quoted Vice Foreign Minister Marco Albuja Martinez as saying in comments confirmed by the Ecuadorean embassy in Moscow.

"If he falls ill, we will have to choose between two alternatives: to treat Assange in the embassy or hospitalize him," Albuja Martinez said. "This is a very serious situation and it can affect Assange's human rights."

Later on Wednesday, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in Quito that while he does not know if Assange has any medical problems, he is worried about his health as time goes on.

"It's obvious that his health will deteriorate and we don't have a protocol, we don't have the necessary conditions" to deal with a possible health emergency, Patino said.

Ecuador has asked the British Foreign Office for a document that would enable Assange to enter hospital safely if necessary and return to the embassy with refugee status.

"I still haven't had a response from Britain to see what we do if Mr. Julian Assange has an emergency ... . At this point, the threat that they will arrest him if he sets foot outside the embassy still stands," Patino said, adding that Assange is "suffering."

Assange is said to be living a cramped life inside the embassy. He eats mostly take-out food and uses a treadmill to burn off energy and a vitamin D lamp to make up for the lack of sunlight.

In late August, the former computer hacker said he expected to wait six months to a year for a deal that would allow him to leave the embassy.

The Foreign Office said it was unaware of Assange's health problems.

"Ecuador have not told us that Mr Assange is ill. However, were they to do so, we would consider the matter," said a Foreign Office spokesman.

Ecuador granted Assange asylum in August and said it shared his fears that he could face charges in the United States over the publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

When he appeared on a balcony of the building to address supporters in August, Assange appeared tanned and in good health. But a BBC reporter who saw him recently described him as "a very pale man" in a story broadcast on Sunday.

Assange, 41, broke the conditions of his bail when he entered the embassy after running out of legal options to avoid being sent to Sweden.

Speaking about the safe passage request he said Ecuador had lodged with the Foreign Office, Albuja Martinez said his country was pleased that Britain "did not reject it outright".

"We will not put pressure on them and will patiently await an answer, so that Assange can receive medical treatment if necessary," he was quoted as saying in Moscow.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman and Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Eduardo Garcia in Quito; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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