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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs, who stole the equivalent of $50 million 46 years ago, was freed early from prison Friday on compassionate grounds as he lay in hospital gravely ill.
Biggs, who spent 35 years on the run, won notoriety and some popularity for his ingenuity in evading capture and for cheekily thumbing his nose at the law from sun-soaked beaches.
Even now his early release from jail for a crime that earned him a place in criminal history and made him a household name in Britain has divided public opinion.
Rail unions, who told British media he was "no Robin Hood," said he should have spent the rest of his life in prison for his role in a robbery in which a train driver was seriously hurt.
The Prison Reform Trust welcomed the news and said the jail terms of hundreds of elderly prisoners should also be reviewed.
Biggs, said to be frail and sick in hospital with pneumonia, is free to celebrate his 80th birthday Saturday with friends and family -- 46 years to the day since the heist.
"The (release) papers were signed off," a Justice Ministry spokeswoman said. Biggs is expected to stay in hospital for now, but will no longer be under guard.
With 11 other gang members, Biggs robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963 and stole 2.6 million pounds -- about 30 million pounds ($49 million) in today's money. The crime became known as "The Great Train Robbery."
Train driver Jack Mills was hit with an iron bar by an unknown member of the gang and never fully recovered.
Biggs was caught and convicted the following year but escaped from prison after just 15 months using a rope ladder that dropped him on to the roof of a waiting van.
Following his escape, he spent decades as a fugitive, moving from Australia to Panama and Venezuela, before ending up in Brazil, where his playboy lifestyle and cocky defiance of the British authorities made him a criminal legend.
He was tracked down in 1974 by a British newspaper, but narrowly escaped extradition from Brazil because his girlfriend, stripper Raimunda de Castro, was pregnant.
He even appeared alongside 1970s punk rock group the Sex Pistols, known for their anti-establishment views, in the film "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle."
Now 79, Biggs returned to Britain voluntarily in 2001 and has been in jail since, but his declining health stirred debate about whether he should be released from his 30-year sentence.
The government approved his release after being told he was unlikely to recover, reversing its decision last month to refuse him parole on the grounds that he had not shown remorse.
Biggs' son Michael, who was at his father's bedside at a hospital close to Norwich prison in eastern England where he was held, said his father, who has suffered several strokes, was unable to speak, walk or feed himself.
But he said he was "absolutely delighted" with the news.
"It took him a few minutes to use a spelling board, but his actual first words were that he is 'over the moon'. He is very happy," Michael told television reporters outside the hospital.
"We are all delighted that finally common sense has prevailed," he said.
Editing by Andrew Roche