BUTNER: Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard was released from a US prison today after serving nearly 30 years for passing American secrets to Israel, in a move welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The decades-long punishment has been deemed disproportionate by the Jewish state, where Pollard is seen by some as a national hero.
Netanyahu, who has long pressed for Pollard's release, said today that "after three long and difficult decades Jonathan is at last reunited with his family."
"The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard," he said.
The Pollard case has been a major bone of contention between Israel and the United States, with successive US presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama refusing Pollard's early release.
"As someone who raised Jonathan's case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come," Netanyahu said.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed Pollard's release.
"Jonathan Pollard is no longer in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. He is now under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office," it said in a statement.
Jacques Semmelman and Eliot Lauer, Pollard's two lawyers, also confirmed to AFP the 61-year-old's pre-dawn release from a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Announcement of his release was made by his main support group in Israel, as well.
But despite being free, Pollard still remains barred from leaving the United States for five years.
A US court jailed Pollard, a Stanford University graduate and former US Navy intelligence analyst, for life in 1987 after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.
Pollard's release on parole comes almost 30 years to the day of his arrest on November 21, 1985.
Perception of Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, has evolved there over the years, with rightwing activists seeking to turn him into an icon.
In the United States, however, Pentagon and CIA officials are still reeling with anger from the classified defense documents that Pollard leaked.
In a sign of the case's sensitivity, Netanyahu had asked his ministers to refrain from claiming a victory upon Pollard's release, according to local media.
Pollard's lawyers have shown similar discretion in recent days, refusing to give details of the prisoner's plans once he is freed.
However, they have said that he has given assurances that he has a job and a place to live in the New York area.
A spokesman for his Israeli supporters group had no immediate word on Pollard's whereabouts after his release.
Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said returning Pollard to Israel is an issue "Netanyahu has regularly raised."