SHIKMA PRISON, Israel - Jubilant cries of "hero" were mingled with hate-filled threats of violence as Mordechai Vanunu walked to freedom after 18 years in prison for lifting the lid on Israel's nuclear program.
Leaping up on the bars of the prison gates, the 49-year-old nuclear whistleblower flashed the victory sign at the emotional crowds, drawing a rousing cheer from his supporters and a hail of foul-mouthed curses from his enemies.
Addressing assembled journalists just inside the prison compound, Vanunu said he was proud of having exposed details of Israel's atomic arsenal to the outside world.
"Vanunu has won, Vanunu is free!"
Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, flashes a victory sign as he is freed from Shikma jail in Ashkelon after serving an 18-year prison term for revealing secrets that exposed Israel as one of the world's top atomic powers April 21, 2004. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
But once through the gates, Vanunu was quickly hustled into a waiting car, frustrating many who had hoped for a brief glimpse of the man whose fate they had championed for so long.
"Vanunu has won, Vanunu is free!" chorused his supporters, throwing flowers at the car and waving posters bearing his picture.
As the white car pulled away, a furious tumult of onlookers broke through the police barriers and gave chase, many screaming murderous threats of revenge.
"You dirty bastard, you will die, traitor!" yelled one man in his 30s, voicing a threat made by many waiting outside the prison.
Shortly before making his getaway, Vanunu admitted he was "proud and happy" to have blown the whistle on Israel's nuclear program.
"I am proud and happy that I did what I did," he told reporters at the prison compound in southern Israel.
Speaking in English, he described his treatment in prison as "cruel and barbaric" but insisted he had "no more secrets" to tell.
Vanunu, who worked as a technician at the Dimona nuclear facility in southern Israel, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1986 after giving details about Israel's secret weapons program. to Britain's Sunday Times.
Shortly after Vanunu's departure, the scenes of jubilation soon turned ugly as a group of his more volatile opponents began lobbing stones and eggs at those celebrating his long-awaited release, forcing scores of police to come running to the scene.
Until then, the police had largely turned a blind eye to the violent ranting of Vanunu's opponents, allowing them to get much closer to the prison gates than the well-wishers.
With many Israelis denouncing him as a "traitor" and a "spy", many of Vanunu's international supporters fear that the more extreme elements will try to harm, or even kill him.
"I feel really joyful that he's out, but the future is very worrying," said 38-year-old Ben Inman, a caretaker from London. "I just hope he is allowed to leave Israel and live in peace where he wants."
Shortly before his release, friends and well-wishers released a flock of doves into the air and handed out flowers, largely ignoring the verbal racket kicked up by anti-Vanunu protestors, who bombarded them with racist slurs.
"You're not Jewish, you have no right to be here," shouted an elderly Israeli, carrying a placard saying "Death to Vanunu".
Although many of the 100 or so internationals had traveled half-way across the globe to be present at Vanunu's release, it was not clear whether they would get a chance to meet with him, given the restrictions imposed on him.
Israeli officials confirmed Tuesday that Vanunu would be subjected to an unprecedented set of stringent security restrictions which would bar him from leaving the country, from approaching any port or airport or making contact with foreigners without prior authorization.
Nick and Mary Eoloff, a couple from Minnesota who adopted Vanunu in 1997 after he was disowned by his real parents, said Tuesday that the prospect of his release was tinged with regret, as it was still not clear whether they would be able to meet their "son".
"We were all hoping that he would walk out and we could all go home together but because they have imposed these cruel, cruel restrictions, we don't know whether we can see him or not," Mary Eoloff told AFP.
© Copyright 2004 AFP