PARIS (AFP) - The French government, reacting to a letter from Julian Assange, said Friday it would not give the WikiLeaks founder asylum, only for his lawyers to claim he had never sought it in the first place.
"France cannot act on his request," President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement, responding to a letter from Assange that was widely interpreted as asking for asylum.
"The situation of Mr Assange does not present an immediate danger. Furthermore, he is subject to a European arrest warrant," Hollande's office said.
In Assange's letter, published earlier Friday in Le Monde newspaper, he described himself as a "journalist pursued and threatened with death by the United States' authorities as a result of my professional activities".
"In welcoming me, France would be accomplishing a humanitarian gesture," wrote the Australian activist, who turned 44 on Friday.
"Only France finds itself in a position to offer me the necessary protection against... the political persecutions I face."
However, his legal team later denied that Assange had applied for asylum, saying he was only responding to a recent invitation by a group of French civil rights activists, backed by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, to visit the country.
"Julian Assange has not made any request for asylum in France," said Baltasar Garzon, head of his defence team, in a statement published on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed.
Assange's letter had played on the issue of US spying, which caused an uproar again last week when WikiLeaks released documents indicating that the United States had wiretapped Hollande and his two predecessors.
"The scale of the scandal and the reactions that followed our latest revelations confirmed the legitimacy of our approach," he wrote.
"These revelations were made at the risk of our lives."
SEPARATED FROM FAMILY
Assange has spent over three years holed up in the Ecuador embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations by two women, one of rape and one of sexual assault, which he denies.
The former computer hacker fears extradition to Sweden could lead to him being transferred to the United States to face trial over WikiLeaks' publication of classified US military and diplomatic documents.
In his letter to Hollande, Assange said he had not seen his youngest child or the child's mother - both French - for five years.
"I have had to keep their existence secret up to today in order to protect them," he wrote.
He claimed last month that Swedish prosecutors had cancelled a long-awaited interview regarding his case.
Prosecutors had long insisted that he travel to Sweden for questioning but in March they agreed to go to London because some of the alleged offences will reach their statute of limitations in August.
But at the last minute, the interview was cancelled on the grounds that the prosecutors had not received permission from Ecuador to enter its embassy.
A criminal investigation is ongoing in the US into WikiLeaks' release in 2010 of 500,000 classified military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 250,000 diplomatic cables.
The main source of the leaks, US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for breaches of the Espionage Act.