STOCKHOLM — Swedish prosecutors withdrew an arrest warrant for the founder of WikiLeaks on Saturday, saying less than a day after the document was issued that it was based on an unfounded accusation of rape.
They said that for the moment Julian Assange remains suspected of the lesser crime of molestation in a separate case.
Swedish prosecutors had urged Assange — a nomadic 39-year-old Australian whose whereabouts were unclear — to turn himself in to police to face questioning in the cases.
"I don't think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape," chief prosecutor Eva Finne said, in announcing the withdrawal of the warrant. She did not address the status of the molestation case.
But Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Prosecution Authority, told NBC News that the allegation of molestation remains. However, Rosander said that after a new prosecutor looked at the allegations, the arrest warrant was withdrawn because the severity of the case does not require an arrest at this stage.
Rosander told NBC News Swedish authorities have no idea where Assange is but have been trying to contact him.
Assange has no permanent address and travels frequently — jumping from one friend's place to the next. He disappears from public view for months at a time, only to reappear in the full glare of the cameras at packed news conferences to discuss his site's latest disclosure.
He was in Sweden last week seeking legal protection for the whistle-blower website, which angered the Obama administration for publishing thousands of leaked documents about U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange dismissed the rape allegations in a statement on WikiLeaks' Twitter page, saying "the charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing."
'Afghan War Diary'
The first files in its "Afghan War Diary" revealed classified military documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. Assange said Wednesday that WikiLeaks plans to release a new batch of 15,000 documents from the Afghan war within weeks.
The Pentagon says the information could risk the lives of U.S. troops and their Afghan helpers and have demanded WikiLeaks return all leaked documents and remove them from the Internet.
Little is known about Assange's private life — he declined to talk about his background at a news conference in Stockholm a week ago. Equally secretive is the small team behind WikiLeaks, reportedly just a half-dozen people and casual volunteers who offer their services as needed.
A WikiLeaks spokesman, who says he goes by the name Daniel Schmitt in order to protect his identity, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Iceland that the "extremely serious allegations" came as a complete surprise and that efforts to find lawyers for Assange are under way.
"We are currently looking into the matter," Schmitt said. It will be resolved within the coming weeks and months, he added.
WikiLeaks also commented on the allegations on its Twitter page. Apart from the comment from Assange, the page had a link to an article in Swedish tabloid Expressen, which first reported the allegations.
"We were warned to expect 'dirty tricks.' Now we have the first one," it said.
Assange was in Sweden last week partly to apply for a publishing certificate to make sure the website, which has servers in Sweden, can take full advantage of Swedish laws protecting whistle-blowers.
He also spoke at a seminar hosted by the Christian faction of the opposition Social Democratic party and announced he would write bimonthly columns for a left-wing Swedish newspaper.
NBC News' Peter Jeary and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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