The Turkish gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 was released from prison Thursday after serving more than 25 years in Italy and Turkey for the plot against the pontiff and the slaying of a Turkish journalist.
A white sedan whisked Mehmet Ali Agca - whose attempt to assassinate the pope gained notoriety for himself and shame for his homeland - through the gates of the high-security Kartal Prison. Nationalist supporters who had fought alongside Agca in street battles against leftists in the 1970s cheered and tossed flowers.
Agca, 48, wearing a bright blue sweater and jeans, was freed five years after he was pardoned by Italy and extradited to Turkey. He had served 20 years in prison in Italy, where John Paul forgave him in a visit to his prison cell in 1983.
"We are happy. We endlessly thank the Turkish state," said his brother, Adnan.
He said one of the first things Agca wanted to do was order a typical Turkish meal of beans and rice at a restaurant overlooking the Bosporus Strait, the narrow waterway that bisects Istanbul and joins the European and Asian continents.
After his release, Agca - who initially was handcuffed - reported to a military recruitment center. As he left, uncuffed, he handed a journalist a photocopy of a Time magazine cover showing him with the pope and the headline: "Why forgive?"
Agca, who had dodged the draft in the 1970s, then went for a routine checkup at a military hospital, where he was being screened to see if he was fit for mandatory military service. It was unclear whether the army would require him to serve. Agca's lawyer said his client had applied previously to serve a shortened term in the military.
Agca slipped away through a back door only used by high military commanders and his whereabouts were not immediately known.
Outside the hospital, about 250 left-wing activists staged a protest to denounce his release. "Agca will pay!" they shouted, holding pictures of comrades killed by Agca's Gray Wolves.
Agca shot the pope as he rode in an open car in St. Peter's Square in Rome on May 13, 1981, and was captured immediately. John Paul was hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm, but recovered because Agca's bullets missed vital organs.
Agca has never offered a motive for the shooting.
Hundreds of Agca's right-wing supporters came to Istanbul to celebrate his release.
John Paul, who died last April, met with Agca in Italy's Rebibbia prison in 1983 and forgave him, the AP reports.