JERUSALEM — An Australian clergyman on the trail of a missing former Israeli nuclear technician said here Sunday he has "solid information" that the man is being held secretly in Israel.
Mordechai Vanunu, who sold information to the Sunday Times of London about Israel's nuclear program, disappeared Sept. 30, and there have been unconfirmed press reports that he was abducted by Israel's Mossad security service and brought here to face treason charges.
Based on data and more than 60 photographs supplied by Vanunu, the Sunday Times reported early this month that Israel had been manufacturing atomic warheads for 20 years and that, with about 100 nuclear weapons in its stockpile, it ranks as the world's sixth-largest nuclear power.
The Rev. John McKnight, an Anglican priest from Sydney, said he was in Israel because of the abduction reports and "more solid information" concerning Vanunu's fate. McKnight refused to detail that information except to say he heard that Vanunu was remanded in custody for 15 days during a secret legal proceeding last week.
According to McKnight, Vanunu converted to Christianity while in Australia earlier this year and became a member of his parish. The clergyman said parishioners had financed his trip in hopes that he could find the missing technician.
"We really look after each other and care for each other," he said of his church. "My visit here is pastoral, not political," he told a crowded press conference.
McKnight said he had requested information about Vanunu from Israeli officials and that he had been given an appointment with a senior political adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for Sunday morning. But when he arrived, McKnight said, he was told that the official "still wasn't ready to talk to me, and could I phone him back."
Repeated subsequent efforts to reach the adviser, Aryeh Mekel, were unsuccessful, McKnight said. Reached by the Los Angeles Times, Mekel referred a correspondent to Shamir's press spokesman, who acknowledged McKnight's request but said: "Since we don't have any information and Mr. Mekel is unable to help him, there is no point in conducting any such meeting. And this is what we told him."
While he carefully avoided blaming the Mossad for Vanunu's disappearance, McKnight said that the 31-year-old technician told him before leaving Australia for London last month that "the Israelis would not be pleased" by his nuclear revelations. "I do not believe he would have left England of his own free will," the clergyman added.
According to McKnight, Vanunu had also expressed concern for his life and his security both before going to London and in telephone calls and in at least one letter after arriving there.
McKnight said he had not contacted Vanunu's family here since arriving last Thursday night but that, based on second-hand information current as of Saturday, they apparently had not seen the missing man since his reported abduction.
Israeli officials have refused to comment substantively on either the Sunday Times revelations or the reports of Vanunu's abduction by the Mossad. And the Israeli press has been put under a virtual gag order concerning the subject. The respected independent daily newspaper Haaretz has twice in recent days seen its editorials on the Vanunu affair censored out of the newspaper.
Worked at Dimona Complex
Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein did confirm that Vanunu was a former employee of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission but said his statements were not credible because he was seeking revenge after being fired from his job.
Vanunu worked for more than nine years at Israel's "experimental" nuclear reactor at Dimona, in the Negev desert. It is one of the country's most secret and best-guarded installations, and its capacity to produce weapons has long been the subject of deliberate official ambiguity.
Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told a recent strategic studies seminar in Jerusalem that the prevalent Arab belief that Israel possesses "certain deterrent weapons" helps reduce the danger of conflict in the region.
After the original Sunday Times story, Peres said Israel is "used to sensational reports on the nuclear research center in Dimona and does not make a practice of commenting on them."
Born in Morocco, Vanunu emigrated to Israel with his family as a boy. He was a noncommissioned officer in the Israeli army's engineering corps and in 1976 went to work at the Dimona complex. He reportedly received special training in handling plutonium and in uranium radiation.
Vanunu was dismissed from his job last winter as part of a general cutback at the facility, although, according to press reports, he was considered particularly expendable because of his pro-Palestinian sympathies.