By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador cast its dispute with Britain over asylum for WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange as a struggle against colonialism on Saturday, drawing growing support from its neighbors in the international diplomatic saga.
Incensed by London's threat to break into the Ecuadorean Embassy where the former hacker is taking refuge, President Rafael Correa's government has accused Britain of bullying and has formally granted Assange asylum.
Britain says it will not allow the anti-secrecy campaigner from Australia to travel to South America because it is obliged to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations.
"They're out of touch. Who do they think they're dealing with? Can't they see that this is a dignified and sovereign government which will not kneel down before anyone?" Correa said in his weekly address on Saturday.
"What a mentality, eh? They have not realized that Latin America is free and sovereign and that we'll not put up with meddling, colonialism of any kind, at least in this country, small, but with a big heart."
Trying to present the affair as an international David versus Goliath battle, Ecuador was hosting this weekend foreign ministers from both the ALBA group of leftist-led Latin American nations and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
On Saturday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for ALBA members -- which also includes communist-ruled Cuba and Nicaragua, among others -- to stand behind Ecuador.
"Latin America must be respected, our people must be respected, but only united can we earn that respect."
"INVIOLABILITY OF EMBASSIES"
Support for Ecuador appears to be growing in the region.
"Britain ... is wrong. The threat is not only an aggression to Ecuador, it's against Bolivia, it's against South America, against the whole of Latin America," Bolivian President Evo Morales said on Friday.
Ecuadorean state media said other nations including Colombia and Argentina were backing Correa's position.
On Friday representatives of the hemispheric Organization of American States (OAS) called for a foreign ministers' meeting next week over the Assange affair.
Canada and the United States voted against holding the meeting.
"The central issue is not the right of asylum, it is the inviolability of embassies," OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said after the vote.
Ecuador, an oil-producing nation of 14.5 million people that seldom finds itself in the global spotlight, is furious Britain said it could make use of an obscure measure to break into its embassy where Assange has been for more than two months.
"Is the threat of a European government to the sovereignty of a South American country not important because we're a small nation?" Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said, adding that maybe the region should also discuss the U.S. Guantanamo base in Cuba and Argentina's claim to the Falklands.
The Ecuadorean government shares Assange's fears that he ultimately could be extradited to the United States, which is angry that his WikiLeaks website has leaked hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic and military cables.
The leftist Correa, who has high popularity levels and is expected to run for re-election in February 2013, had developed some rapport with Assange during an online interview the WikiLeaks founder did with him this year.
Correa's stance has been largely cheered by Ecuadoreans, and there have been scattered protests at the British Embassy.
"The whole world should back Ecuador for giving Assange asylum and because this country is the first one to promote freedom of expression," said Mary Valenzuela, a 39-year-old restaurant owner.
After WikiLeaks released its deluge of diplomatic cables that laid bare Washington's power-brokering across the globe, Assange became revered as a freedom-of-speech champion in many parts of Latin America, where there is strong tradition of criticizing the United States for meddling.
Leftist nations, and others, have been increasingly turning to new partners like China and Russia in recent years.
However, Europe and the United States are still important trade partners with the region, so Ecuador could suffer should the conflict escalate along commercial lines.
Business leaders and analysts told Reuters this week that long-time U.S. trade benefits for the Andean country are at risk due to the Assange saga.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman)