Snow and mansion arrest fail to silence WikiLeaks chief

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Deep in the snowy English countryside, Julian Assange spends his time at a friend's mansion defending the WikiLeaks website following his release on bail from a London prison.

The irrepressible Australian spoke out Saturday after playing a cat and mouse game with journalists along the icy lanes of the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk while en route to a police station in the town of Beccles.

Standing at the door of the station, where he must report daily as a condition of his bail while he resides at his friend's Ellingham Hall country estate 11 kilometres (seven miles) away, he agreed to pose for photographs.

Assange, whose prematurely white hair is flecked with darker streaks, wore a green anorak to keep out the bitter cold. Although it could not be seen, he is also wearing an electronic tag as part of his bail conditions.

London's High Court released the 39-year-old WikiLeaks founder on bail on Thursday. He is fighting an extradition warrant issued by Sweden over accusations that he sexually assaulted two women, which he denies.

As he left the station, Assange took the chance to hit out at "business McCarthyism" after the Bank of America halted all transactions to the whistleblowing site over its publication of thousands of US diplomatic cables.

But he added that the website would continue to reveal more confidential documents.

"We are a robust organisation. During my time in solitary confinement we continued to publish everyday and its not going to change," he said, before climbing back into a black people-carrier.

Assange's circumstances have undergone a radical change since he spent nine days in a London jail cell, with his time now spent hiding out in the ten-bedroom Ellingham Hall or venturing out to speak to the media.

"He is settling down in the house," said the owner, Vaughan Smith, a former military officer and founder of London's Frontline Club for journalists who met Assange when he stayed at the club earlier this year.

"He is comfortable, composed, calm, confident. He works, I don't spend my time looking over his shoulder, I am a host, not his jailer," Smith told AFP.

The estate covers around 240 hectares (593 acres) and offers fishing and private shooting facilities. Assange's lawyer joked in court this week that he would be "if not under house arrest, at least under mansion arrest."

Smith has no doubt of his guest's innocence or about the importance of Assange's website. It was Smith's offer to put Assange up that partly swayed judges to grant the Australian bail.

"He initiated developments that will change our world. There is an opportunity for governments to change. We would have a better world as a result," he said.

Around a dozen journalists braved the cold outside waiting for the latest pronouncements from Assange, who is staying at the mansion with a group of friends including WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson.

On Saturday the main entrance to the estate was blocked by a length of rope. Two gardeners employed by the Smith family who were effectively acting as security guards against the hordes of reporters who arrived on Thursday have been stood down.

Assange's arrival in this quiet farming region in eastern England has caused a bit of a stir among the locals in the hamlet of Ellingham -- but not much.

"The only excitement here is that if somebody has a birthday. The bus goes through every hour. There are local farmers with tractors all the time," said Tony Game, 67, a retired engineer.

Nigel Bale, a retiree who is also 67 added: "It s a little sleepy village. This story makes life more interesting."

© 2010 AFP

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