By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa doubts Britain and Sweden will change their tough stance on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, especially since they are negotiating with a small, poor country like his.
Ecuador's leftist leader told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that he remained open to talks over the fate of the former computer hacker, who has been holed up at the Ecuadorean embassy in London for more than two months.
Britain says it is determined to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of rape and sexual assault. Correa says he shares Assange's fears that he could then be sent to the United States to face charges over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of secret U.S. cables.
"We have always had faith in dialogue. You never lose hope," said Correa, who granted asylum to the 41-year-old Australian last week.
"But ... I'm a bit skeptical that Britain, Sweden or the United States will change their position, since they are not used to doing so, and even less so when they are in talks with a 'Third World country' like Ecuador," he said.
"We've always been underestimated, but we still have hope."
Despite Assange's claims that Washington is plotting to extradite, U.S. and European government sources say the United States has issued no criminal charges against the WikiLeaks founder and has launched no attempt to extradite him. The Obama administration has said his fate is in the hands of Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.
Correa, a 49-year-old economist, is a self-declared enemy of the U.S. "empire" who seldom shies away from a fight, whether it is with the Catholic Church or international bondholders.
His government says it never intended to prevent Assange from facing justice in Sweden, and it has called on Britain and Sweden to provide him with written guarantees that he would not be extradited from there to any third country.
Ecuador's president said it would be "perfectly possible" in theory for London and Stockholm to issue those assurances.
If Assange received guarantees from Britain and Sweden that he would never be extradited to the United States, Correa added, the WikiLeaks founder would decline Ecuador's asylum offer and hand himself over to Swedish prosecutors.
"Those guarantees can be given by Sweden. They can be given by Britain by extraditing him under that condition. Neither one wants to provide those guarantees," Correa said.
"He has never refused to face justice in Sweden ... That's why I think there is a hidden plan to send Assange to a third country. What other conclusion could you reach?"
Correa said he remains angry at a veiled threat by Britain to enter its embassy in London's affluent Knightsbridge district and arrest Assange. Speaking to Reuters in a TV studio in Quito, he said that had been "a monumental diplomatic mistake."
"Can you imagine if a similar threat were issued by a third world country to a first world nation?" he asked. "That would have been a global scandal. This has become one, but they have tried to minimize it by saying that it's a bilateral problem."
Correa has long been critical of what he sees as heartless capitalism, and has accused foreign investors of profiting from Ecuador's natural resources while doing little for the poor.
Since taking office in 2007 he has put in place reforms to increase the state's revenue from the oil sector and redistribute wealth by building schools, hospitals and roads.
He said the Assange saga had been worsened by the "arrogance, neo-colonialism and ethnocentrism" that other countries had shown towards Latin America as a whole.
But he said the diplomatic stand-off also marked the beginning of a "new era" during which Latin Americans would more staunchly defend their sovereign rights.
"This is not a about patching up systems that have not worked for centuries," Correa said. "It is about changing the systems, and that is why we are clashing with national and international powers that want things to stay as they are."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis)