Israel releases UK reporter held over Vanunu tapes

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The Independent Online

The British journalist Peter Hounam will leave Israel today under threat of deportation after being detained for 24 hours over his work on a planned BBC documentary about Mordechai Vanunu, jailed for 18 years for revealing the country's nuclear secrets.

Mr Hounam, who first broke the story of Mr Vanunu's revelations while working on the Sunday Times in 1986, was released last night by Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency.

Shin Bet agents, who arrested Mr Hounam in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night on the grounds of suspected espionage have seized several versions of a videotaped interview with Mr Vanunu conducted by Yael Lotan, a leading supporter of the former nuclear technician last Saturday. Mr Hounamís release followed representations by Simon McDonald, the British Ambassador in Tel Aviv.

Some of the tapes were taken from Chris Mitchell, whose independent production company Magnetic North is making the film for the BBC, after he was detained at Ben Gurion airport on his way to London last Sunday. Others were taken when a film editor, Sadi Haeri, was also detained on Wednesday.

Agents also seized tapes after detaining another member of the team Sadi Haeri for several hours on Wednesday before Mr Hounam's arrest.

But although a senior official of Israel's security services said last night that he did not know whether all the tapes had been recovered, at least one is thought to be extant and not in the Israeli authority's hands - possibly in St George's Anglican cathedral in East Jerusalem, where Mr Vanunu has been staying, and where the interview was conducted. Security officials, who said Mr Hounam was barred from returning to Israel, admitted last night they did not know whether they had all the interview tapes. They said they were still investigating the possible role of the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, The Rt. Rev. Abu Al-Assal in helping Mr Hounam.

Mr Hounam said last night as he left the Russian Compound detention centre in Jerusalem that the authorities had made a "terrible mistake'' by arresting him. He said they had been working on the apparent assumption seemed to think that the interview contained revelations of new secret information about Israel's nuclear programme but it had not. He said: "Mordechai Vanunu has no more secrets to reveal."

He said he had been held in an excrement-smeared cell, questioned for over four hours and allowed only two hours sleep.

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