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LOS ANGELES/GSTAAD, Switzerland (Reuters) - Switzerland on Monday refused to extradite director Roman Polanski to California for sentencing on a 30-year-old sex crime and freed him from house arrest, causing delight in Europe but dismay in the United States.
Polanski, 76, who admitted to drugging and having sex with a 13-year-old girl in California in 1977, was released from electronic monitoring at his Swiss chalet in Gstaad.
He said in a statement issued through his French lawyer, Herve Temime: "I don't plan to express myself publicly following the (Swiss) Federal Office of Justice's decision. I simply want to thank from the bottom of my heart those who have supported me... A big thank you to all."
Polanski's whereabouts were unknown. A person who identified herself as the film-maker's assistant said he had left Gstaad, where he had been under house arrest since December.
The Swiss Justice Ministry said it had decided against extradition because of potential technical faults in the U.S. request regarding legal arguments that Polanski had already served his sentence before fleeing Los Angeles in 1978.
In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose office has fought for years to have Polanski returned, said authorities would seek extradition again "if he's arrested in a cooperative jurisdiction."
Cooley said Switzerland's refusal was "disservice to justice and other victims as a whole... The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat."
The U.S. State Department said it would continue to pursue justice. "A 13-year-old girl was drugged and raped by an adult. This is not a matter of technicality," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a Washington news briefing.
He said the decision to free Polanski "sends a very important message regarding how women and girls are treated around the world. To push this case aside based on technicalities we think is regrettable."
Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said Washington could appeal the decision internationally but she did not expect that to happen.
"He (Polanski) is a free man since 11:30 today," Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference in Berne. "He can go to France or to Poland, anywhere where he will not be arrested."
Polanski, who won a best director Oscar for his 2002 World War Two movie "The Pianist", was arrested in September 2009 when he arrived in Zurich to receive an award.
The director's Los Angeles legal team had no immediate comment on the ruling. But Temime said: "It's an enormous satisfaction and a great relief after the pain suffered by Roman Polanski and his family."
Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with the girl after giving her champagne and drugs. But he fled before sentencing in 1978 saying he believed the judge would renege on a plea agreement under which his 42 days spent in detention for psychiatric assessment would constitute his full sentence.
"If this were the case, Roman Polanski would actually already have served his sentence and therefore the proceedings on which the U.S. extradition request is founded and the request itself would have no foundation," the Swiss Justice Ministry statement said in a statement on Monday.
Polanski's victim, Samantha Geimer, now a mother of three in her 40s, has repeatedly asked for the case to be dropped.
Polanski's release was welcomed in France, where the director has been a long-time resident and which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States covering the offense.
"The great Franco-Polish director will from now on be able to rejoin his friends and family and work fully on his artistic projects," said French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The Polish Foreign Ministry also welcomed the decision.
Reaction in Hollywood was much more muted. There was no comment on Monday from either the Directors Guild of America, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awarded the fugitive director an Oscar for "The Pianist".
U.S. Media watcher Patrick Goldstein blamed a cultural divide. "In America, having sex with a 13-year-girl is a crime worthy of punishment, no matter how talented Polanski is as a filmmaker. In Europe, it's hardly worthy of a raised eyebrow, which is why Polanski is still lionized in most European countries," Goldstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Born to Polish-Jewish parents in 1933, Polanski escaped from the Krakow ghetto set up under the occupying forces of Nazi Germany. His pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 in Hollywood by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
Polanski is also known for classic films such as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby." He completed his 2010 film "The Ghost Writer," while under arrest in Switzerland.
"The difficult past, the rich personality, the universally admired works of Roman Polanski should all regain their standing," said French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand.
Writing by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Jucca; Additional reporting by Catherine Bosley and Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich, Thierry Leveque and Julien Ponthus in Paris, Andrew Quinn and Jim Vicini in Washington, Editing by David Storey