JERUSALEM — The Israeli government, reacting to public pressure at home and abroad, confirmed Sunday that it is holding Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician accused of selling his country's atomic secrets to a British newspaper.
It was Israel's first substantive comment on the case since Vanunu was reported missing in London on Sept. 30, just a week before the Sunday Times of London published a report, based on Vanunu's disclosures, that Israel possesses up to 100 atomic warheads.
Unconfirmed press reports have said the technician was abducted by agents of Israel's Mossad security service and brought back forcibly to face treason charges.
No Explanation on Return
Sunday's surprise announcement, released after the regular weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, offered no explanation of how Vanunu returned to Israel. But it specifically denied that he was kidnaped on British soil.
The Cabinet announcement also made no reference to charges against Vanunu and added that because of judicial disclosure rules, "no further details will be published."
Separately, Vanunu's attorney, Amnon Zichroni, told Israeli army radio Sunday that he has met with his client "a number of times, the last time a couple of days ago."
Zichroni, one of a handful of Israeli lawyers cleared to work on special cases involving national security, added, "I can't speak about the investigation, but my client protests against the lynch that is being carried out against him in Israel."
Much of the Israeli media and many Israeli officials speaking privately have depicted Vanunu as a traitor for whom severe punishment should be prescribed as a deterrent to others tempted to trade in national secrets. Treason is a capital crime in Israel, while espionage is punishable by life imprisonment and violation of the official secrets act by up to three years in jail.
Zichroni said Vanunu has seen a doctor and been in touch with his family. The 31-year-old former technician, a vegetarian, has suffered unspecified "nutrition problems" in detention here but is now all right, Zichroni said.
Israeli prison officials insisted Sunday that Vanunu is not being held in any of their facilities, lending credence to unconfirmed reports that he has been confined at one of several special prisons run by the country's Shin Bet internal security service.
As recently as late last week, Israeli officials had indicated their hope that without any official comment on the Vanunu case here, overseas publicity about it would die out. The Israeli press has been severely limited in its reporting on the affair by strict military censorship.
'Acknowledging the Evident'
Asked what had changed the government's mind, one official said of Sunday's Cabinet communique, "It was just acknowledging the evident . . . not making fools of ourselves by pretending not to know something the whole world is speaking about."
The government statement, read out by Cabinet Secretary Eliakim Rubinstein, said Vanunu "is under lawful detention in Israel in the wake of a court order which was issued following a hearing at which the lawyer he chose was present."
The Cabinet did not say how Vanunu returned to Israel but stated, "All the rumors to the effect that Vanunu was 'kidnaped' on British soil are totally without foundation."
"It follows," the Cabinet added, "that there is likewise no basis" to reports published in the British press over the weekend that then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres contacted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to inform her of the alleged Mossad action. Thatcher has also denied the reports.
Peres, head of the centrist Labor Alignment, became Israel's foreign minister in mid-October, exchanging posts with Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the rightist Likud Bloc.
Worked 9 Years at Dimona
Vanunu, who worked for more than nine years at Israel's top-secret nuclear reactor research complex at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, was fired a year ago as part of a general cutback at the facility. He left the country last January, smuggling out with him unprocessed film containing more than 60 photographs of the highly classified Dimona operation.
Vanunu sold his information to London's Sunday Times in September, although the Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that he never collected the newspaper's "six-figure" check for the material.
It is unclear when he was returned to Israel, although sources here say he has appeared in court at least twice to have his prison remand extended. The second time was reportedly last week.
Although Israel is assumed to have at least the capability to produce nuclear weapons, it has never so acknowledged, stating only that it would never be the first to use such weapons against an enemy.