AMMAN - A Jordanian soldier who shot dead seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997 was released from prison Sunday after serving out his life sentence, sparking outrage from the families of those killed. In March 1997, Ahmad Dakamseh fired an automatic weapon at schoolgirls on a trip to the Jordan-Israel border, killing seven of them and wounding five others and a teacher.

“He is now a free man,” his cousin Mohammed Yahya Dakamseh told AFP by phone, saying he had been released at around 1:00 am after “he finished his jail term”. Dakamseh, who is aged 46 according to a family member, was released from the Bab al-Hawa prison in Irbid, 90 kilometres (60 miles) north of the capital Amman.

He had been sentenced to life imprisonment, which in Jordan is 20 years. Dakamseh, who hails from Irbid’s Ebder area, was a married father-of-three at the time of the attack. His motives were never entirely clear, but he told the national security court during his trial that he fired his weapon at the schoolgirls after they mocked him while he was praying.

Jordan’s then ruler King Hussein condemned the attack and later travelled to Israel to offer his condolences to the families of the murdered schoolgirls. His government also paid compensation.

The attack came less than three years after Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty. Dakamseh was driven home on Sunday in a convoy of dozens of cars whose drivers were honking their horns, a video shared on social media showed. Dakamseh’s brother Bassem said the family home was full of well-wishers. “He is in good health, wearing a black suit among his relatives and close family including his 78-year-old mother,” his brother said.

Videos circulated on social media showed Dakamseh greeting relatives and posing for selfies with visitors. Dakamseh told Jordanian media on Sunday that he was “against any destabilisation in the country”, but that his opinion of Israelis had not changed. “As for my position on the Zionists, you all know... what I did 20 years ago,” he said.

There was no immediate official reaction from neighbouring Israel, but relatives of the slain schoolgirls slammed Dakamseh’s release. “This morning takes us back 20 years, to that horrible day,” said Hezi Cohen, whose daughter Nirit was shot dead in the attack. “I’d like to tell the (Israeli) prime minister and defence minister: Our children’s blood should not be worthless,” he told Israeli news website Ynet. “You should have acted vis-a-vis Jordan to prevent this release at any cost.”

Orit Cohen, whose sister Keren was killed, said: “Who says that tomorrow he (Dakamseh) won’t carry out another attack and murder more Israelis?”

Israel Fatihi, whose daughter Sivan was killed in the attack, said the Israeli ambassador to Jordan had warned them of the Jordanian’s release. Dakamseh “was called a hero in the Jordanian parliament at the time of the murder,” he said. “If that’s what they said in parliament, what can we expect from the family?”

Israel’s “peace with Jordan is between us (Israelis) and the royal family — not the people or the parliament,” Fatihi said.

After the 1997 killings, Jordanian police said they prevented 100 people including two Islamist members of parliament from paying a solidarity visit to Dakamseh’s family. But 21 other lawmakers in a statement condemned the massacre, saying the holy war mentioned in the Quran did not authorise the killing of children.

Dakamseh, who suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, was hospitalised in 2014 after he went on a five-day hunger strike to demand his release.

His strike followed Jordanian lawmakers demanding his release after Israeli soldiers killed a Jordanian judge in a scuffle at the Allenby Bridge border crossing with the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Jordan in 2011 had to distance itself from a newly appointed minister’s remarks that Dakamseh was a “hero” after Israel summoned Jordan’s ambassador. Then justice minister Hussein Mujalli, who had also been Dakamseh’s lawyer, said he was a “hero” and did not deserve prison. Jordan is the only Arab nation besides Egypt to have signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state..