The Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on Friday warned that the diplomatic impasse over Julian Assange could drag on ``for years’’ if Britain did not allow him safe passage to Ecuador.

"This could end tomorrow if the U.K. grants safe passage, or it could go on for months and years if Mr Assange can't leave the embassy of Ecuador in London," he told the BBC as Britain insisted that it had a ``legal obligation’’ to extradite WikiLeaks chief to Sweden which wants to question him over sexual assault allegations.

The British Foreign Office said it had sent a letter to the Ecuadorian embassy aimed at ``calming things down’’ but gave no details.

Officials at the embassy, where Mr Assange has been holed up since June, said he could stay there for ``centuries’’.

They said a compromise was possible if Britain and Sweden gave credible assurances that Mr Assange would not be handed to American authorities who are investigating WikiLeaks for publishing a mass of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Ecuador also insisted that as ``an indication of good faith’’, Britain must withdraw the ``threat’’ to ``storm’’ its embassy to seize Mr Assange. If the stand-off was not resolved, he could stay there for ``as long as he wants’’, officials said.

"However long it takes. Eight years. Two centuries," said one official.

Denying a secret deal to give asylum to Mr Assange, diplomats said it was a ``big surprise’’ when he landed up at the embassy without warning on June 19. The Ecuadorian ambassador Ana Alba had to fetch an air bed from her home for Mr Assange to sleep on.

More In: International | News