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Vanunu, Disdaining Israel, Is Freed to Chants vs. Cheers

By GREG MYRE (NYT) 640 words
Published: April 22, 2004

ASHKELON, Israel, April 21 - Angry Israelis chanted, ''Shut up, atomic spy!'' and ''Death to traitors!'' as a defiant Mordechai Vanunu headed out of prison on Wednesday after 18 years, flashing the victory sign and declaring he was proud of what he had done.

Mr. Vanunu, 49, appears to be as widely reviled today as he was in 1986, when he was kidnapped by Israel's intelligence service in Rome after giving a detailed interview on Israel's clandestine nuclear program to The Sunday Times of London.

A former nuclear technician, he faces a list of restrictions that bar him from leaving the country for a year or speaking with foreigners. He must tell the authorities in advance before traveling inside Israel.

Yet he held an impromptu news conference in the Shikma Prison courtyard before reaching the street, where dozens of supporters, mostly American and British, cheered him as a hero of the anti-nuclear cause, while several hundred Israelis denounced him as a spy and a traitor.

''To all those calling me a traitor, I'm proud and happy to do what I did,'' he said. Israel's justice minister, Yosef Lapid, said Mr. Vanunu would be closely monitored because the government believed he could divulge more nuclear information.

''This is the treatment he deserved even if the radical left turns him into a hero,'' Mr. Lapid told army radio. ''He betrayed Israel.''

But Mr. Vanunu said he had spilled all his secrets in the Sunday Times interview, where he provided photos and described his nine years working at Israel's nuclear complex in Dimona, in the Negev Desert.

''My secret is dead,'' he said, refusing to speak Hebrew and speaking to reporters in English. ''My case is dead. Everything was published.''

''I am not harming Israel,'' he added. ''I'm not interested in Israel.''

Mr. Vanunu, who converted to Christianity, said he wanted to move to the United States, get married and study history.

Even before he spoke out, it was widely assumed that Israel had nuclear arms. But to this day, it refuses to confirm or deny that, under its policy of ''nuclear ambiguity.''

Based on Mr. Vanunu's information, nuclear experts estimated that Israel had between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons at that time. More recent estimates are in a similar range.

Mr. Vanunu said Israel did not ''need the nuclear arms, especially now when all the Middle East is free from nuclear weapons.''

He also complained of ''cruel and barbaric treatment'' in prison, where he was in solitary confinement for more than 11 years.

As he reached the front of the prison, he stuck one arm through the gate and gave the victory sign. He wanted to walk out, but the police would not permit it because of the mostly hostile crowd.

Instead, he staged the news conference inside the gate. The authorities made no attempt to stop him, and after nearly half an hour, his brother Meir Vanunu guided him into a car.

Supporters threw roses on the vehicle, which was surrounded by the police as it inched through the crowd.

''I felt enormous elation,'' said Susannah York, the British actress who was among the foreign supporters who came for the release.

But angry Israelis began pounding on the car with their fists and screaming at him until the police escort was able to clear a path. Others held up up blackened roses as a symbol of their opposition.



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