Julian Assange, the secretive founder of WikiLeaks, the website behind the biggest leak of US military documents in history, was the subject of conspiracy theories last night after prosecutors withdrew a warrant for his arrest in connection with rape and molestation allegations.
On Friday a spokeswoman for the Swedish prosecutors' office in Stockholm confirmed an arrest warrant for Assange had been issued in absentia and urged him to "contact police so that he can be confronted with the suspicions".
According to Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, the 39-year-old Australian had been wanted in connection with two separate incidents. The first involved a woman from Stockholm who reportedly accused him of "molestation". The second involved a woman from Enköping, about an hour's drive west from Stockholm, who had apparently accused Assange of rape. The warrant was withdrawn yesterday afternoon.
Assange claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign. He denied the charges on WikiLeaks's Twitter page, saying they were "without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing".
It is believed that Assange, who has no known address and spends much of his time travelling to ensure a low profile, knew both women well. The pair had been reluctant to go to the police with their complaints, according to sources in Sweden. But the news that Swedish police were investigating the affair was leaked to Expressen, prompting further claims that a smear campaign had been orchestrated by foreign interests keen to discredit him.
Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and a friend of Assange, said: "A lot of us who had any notion of what he was doing expected this sort of thing to happen at least a week ago. I'm amazed it has taken them this long to get it together. This is how smears work. The charges are made and then withdrawn and the damage is done."
WikiLeaks has courted controversy since July when it posted 77,000 Afghan War documents online, leading to claims it had put the lives of troops and security sources at risk.
Assange had been in Sweden, home to some of WikiLeaks's internet servers, to oversee the release of thousands more classified documents relating to US military operations.
Last week he announced at a press conference in Stockholm that his website was set to publish a final batch of 15,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan in "a couple of weeks".
"It seems an unusual time to embark on a career of multiple rape," said Guardian journalist David Leigh, who has worked closely with Assange over the recent WikiLeaks Afghanistan documents. "He certainly didn't come across as a violent man, not in the least. Julian was clearly preparing to release more sensitive documents."
There had been speculation that Assange's arrest would prompt WikiLeaks to post a secret code that would decrypt a massive "insurance file" on its site, the contents of which are the subject of frenzied speculation. The file dwarfs the size of all the other files on the WikiLeaks Afghanistan page combined, prompting claims that it contains a huge amount of top-secret material. But sceptics believe the file is simply an elaborate bluff and contains nothing revelatory.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, a colleague, of Assange's, said he had not known of the charges "until he read them in the rightwing tabloid Expressen". Hrafnsson said: "There are powerful organisations who want to do harm to WikiLeaks."
Last week Assange claimed the Pentagon was ready to talk to WikiLeaks about its unreleased documents. "We received contact through our lawyers that the General Counsel [of the Pentagon] says now they want to discuss the issue," he said.
A Pentagon spokesman said a phone call had been arranged with the WikiLeaks lawyer but no conversation had taken place. He denied the Pentagon was willing to co-operate with WikiLeaks. "These documents are property of the United States government," he said. "The unauthorised release of them threatens the lives of coalition forces as well as Afghan nationals."
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal claimed both the US Defence and Justice departments were exploring legal options for prosecuting Assange and others on grounds that they encouraged the theft of government property.