Senior Jordanian officials are saying that a terrorist who killed seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997 won't be released from prison, despite calls from the country's new justice minister yesterday to do so.

"[Ahmed] Deqamseh will not be released and the issue is not on the cabinet's agenda," a senior Jordanian official reportedly told Israel.

Minister Hussein Mjali was appointed last week in a government shakeup following protests inspired by the Egyptian uprising. In a bid to allay public protest, King Abdullah formed a broad-based cabinet pledging greater democratic freedoms, including the rights of assembly and speech.

Mjali, who is seen as close to the Muslim opposition, served as the defense lawyer for Deqamseh, a soldier, who killed the girls during an outing in Naharayim, on the border between Israel and Jordan.

Daqamseh's family organized a protest outside Mjali's office yesterday calling for the prisoner's release. Mjali joined the protesters, saying he was participating in his capacity as the soldier's former lawyer.

"I'm committed to be here with you as his lawyer," Mjali told the cheering group. "He doesn't deserve to be in prison."

He met members of Daqamseh's family and Muslim opposition members demanding the prisoner's release.

"He is the most famous Arab prisoner today," Mjali said, according to Jordan's official news agency Petra. "Deqamseh should receive a special pardon, but only the king can do that."

Mjali called Deqamseh a "hero" and said his imprisonment is unjustified, AFP reported.

Israel's ambassador in Amman, Daniel Nevo, spoke to several senior Jordanian officials after Mjali's statements were published, conveying Israel's sharp protest. Nevo said Israel demanded an explanation for the minister's statements and an official denunciation to the media.

At first the officials dismissed Mjali's statements saying they did not represent the government's position but the minister's personal opinion.

'Jordan is Palestine'

"You also have an MK, Aryeh Eldad, who announces every few weeks that Jordan is Palestine," a Jordanian official told Nevo.

Nevo said Eldad is an opposition parliamentarian, not a cabinet member, and insisted that Jordan denounce Mjali's statements.

"Israel is shocked and disgusted by the Jordanian justice minister's utterance about the murderer of Naharayim," the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said in a statement. "This is especially grave because it was uttered by the minister in charge of law and justice. Israel expects the murderer to continue serving the sentence handed down by the Jordanian justice system."

Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Merav Horsandi said "it is difficult for us to comprehend how there are people who support the release of a cold-blooded murderer of young children."

She said an early release would contradict the spirit of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

"Israel cannot imagine a situation in which such a vile murderer will be set free by the Jordan," she added.

Deqamseh opened fire at a group of Israeli schoolgirls near the border on March 13, 1997, killing seven and injuring six.

The corporal was sentenced to life in prison, which translates into a 25-year sentence in Jordan, but refrained from giving him the death penalty, stating he was mentally unbalanced.