By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - A Jordanian soldier who killed seven Israeli schoolgirls has been freed after serving 20 years in prison, with many Jordanians celebrating his release and calling him a national hero, witnesses and family sources said on Sunday.
Ahmad Daqamseh, 45, was taken to his family home in the village of Ibdir near the city of Irbid in northern Jordan where dozens of relatives and wellwishers gave him a rousing welcome.
Jordanian security services set up checkpoints around the village to restrict access as people flocked to see him.
In July 1997, a five-member Jordanian military tribunal found Daqamseh guilty of opening fire on a group of Israeli schoolchildren and killing seven of them before soldiers seized him and rushed to help the victims.
Daqamseh became a hero to many Jordanians and was embraced as a figurehead by a strong opposition movement led by Islamists and nationalists vehemently opposed to the country's peace treaty with Israel.
During the trial, Daqamseh said the girls had mocked him while he was performing Muslim prayers in a border area returned to Jordanian sovereignty under the 1994 peace treaty.
He would have faced the death penalty but the tribunal ruled he was mentally unstable and sentenced him to life imprisonment, which is equivalent to 20 years under Jordanian law.
A few days after the incident, the late King Hussein personally apologized for the incident, traveling to Israel to visit and pay his respects to the girls' families.
Many lawmakers welcomed his release. Neither the Jordanian nor the Israeli government made any comment.
"The release of this hero has cheered us. Israel has committed crimes against many Jordanians that were never accounted for," Saleh Armouti, a leading parliamentarian, said.
One Israeli survivor, Keren Mizrahi, said Daqamseh's release revived painful memories and he had served a light sentence.
"My feeling is that it's like I'm being wounded again, mentally and physically, as if a knife is turned inside my heart," she was quoted as saying on Israeli Channel 10 TV.
A defiant Daqamseh told Al Jazeera he did not recognize Israel, saying Arabs could not have normal ties with what he termed "the Zionist entity".
Jordan's biggest political opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed his release.
"We congratulate Jordan and the family of the hero Ahmad al Daqmaseh his release from prison," it said in a statement.
Many lawmakers and politicians had lobbied to set him free in a kingdom where hostility toward Israel runs deep.
Many Jordanians see Israel as an occupier state which has driven them from their land. Palestinians originally from Jordan make up a large proportion of the country's population.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)