Britain alienates South America following Assange threat

Britain's efforts to open up new markets for trade in South America were rocked by the Julian Assange case yesterday, after a meeting of regional foreign ministers united against "threats" from the UK.

A meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) said it rejected Britain's suggestion it could use a little-known piece of legislation to enter Ecuador's embassy without permission, in order to extradite Assange to Sweden.

Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino held hands with follow foreign ministers from across South America and raised them aloft after they agreed a document saying they supported the country "in the face of the threat" from London.

The meeting is another example of how easy it is for Latin American states to unite against alleged British aggression and how difficult Britain is finding it to put its side of the case across the Atlantic.

In December 2011, Argentina used a meeting of the influential Mercosur bloc, which includes Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, to convince member states to close their ports to British ships flying the Falklands flag.

Yesterday's meeting also substantiated the growing sense that the note passed to Ecuador from the Foreign Office outlining the powers of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 was a spectacular own goal, allowing Ecuador to hold the moral high ground on a point which was not directly related to the validity of Assange's asylum decision.

The final point of the Unasur document appeals for calm and continued dialogue, offering a glimmer of hope for British diplomatic staff trying to prevent the row from becoming too damaging to the UK.

William Hague has made several visits to Latin America since the coalition took office, while other foreign ministers have also made repeat trips.

The visits are a sign of the government's intention to expand trade in rising economic blocks in Asia and Latin America rather than rely on the eurozone.

How far trading agreements will be damaged by the current row is unclear.