QUEZALTEPEQUE, El Salvador (AP) _ A former national guardsman walked out of prison Tuesday, paroled after serving 17 years of a 30-year prison sentence for the 1980 rape and murder of three American nuns and a layworker.

Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura, one of five guardsmen sentenced for the crimes in 1984, left the La Esperanza prison four miles north of San Salvador after he was released under a new law intended to ease prison overcrowding.

Reporters reached by telephone outside the La Esperanza prison confirmed that Moreno Canjura had been released.

Moreno Canjura and the four other guardsmen were convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Roman Catholic nuns Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Maura Clark and layworker Jean Donovan on Dec. 2, 1980.

The crime caused outrage in United States, which strongly supported the Salvadoran government during the 1980-1992 civil war. The women were apparently killed because military-backed death squads suspected them of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.

Two more guardsmen are also eligible for parole under the new law and may be released soon. The other two did not qualify for release because one previously had been convicted on weapons charges and the other had participated in a prison disturbance.

The guardsmen were sentenced to 30 years in prison in May 1984 and have been jailed since 1981. They were to be given credit for time served before their convictions.

The State Department criticized the decision to order the release of three national guardsmen when it was first announced in June. The releases have been held up by appeals by prosecutors.

``We think that's a bad idea,'' spokesman James P. Rubin said at the time, citing the ``heinous'' nature of the crimes.

The guardsmen have claimed in recent interviews that ``higher-ups'' ordered the killing of the four American church workers.

The national guard was disbanded after a 1992 peace agreement ended the civil war, which killed an estimated 75,000 people.