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US warns Libya on treatment of Lockerbie bomber

The United States warned Libya that its treatment of freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi would have a serious impact on ties with Washington. But Libyans celebrated his return anyway.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2009 08:05 IST

The United States warned Libya on Thursday that its treatment of freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi would have a serious impact on ties with Washington. But Libyans celebrated his return anyway.

Soon after President Barack Obama said cancer-stricken Megrahi, freed by Scotland on compassionate grounds on Wednesday, should be under house arrest, he was given a triumphant reception in Libya.

"We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this, and we thought it was a mistake," Obama said in an interview with a conservative radio host at the White House.

"We're now in contact with the Libyan government and want to make sure that if, in fact, this transfer has taken place, that he's not welcomed back in some way, but instead, should be under house arrest."

Hours later, loudspeakers pumped out patriotic music and hundreds of people waved Libyan and Scottish flags as Megrahi's plane landed at Tripoli airport.

He emerged holding the hand of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, a reception that outraged victims' families, who also hit out at Obama.

Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband was killed in the bombing, said she was "beyond sickened" by the Scotish minister's decision and said Obama had been "naive" to believe Meghrahi would be put under house arrest.

"It represents naivete, that somehow releasing this man was the right thing to do. We saw he was greeted with a hero's welcome in Tripoli this evening and I'm sad to say I think our president is naive as well," she told CNN.

Meghrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was serving a life sentence when he became terminally ill with prostate cancer, is the only person ever convicted of the bombing of a US Pan Am jetliner in December 1988 that killed 270 people.

State Department spokesman PJ Crowley warned Libya that its relations with Washington stood to be affected by its handling of Megrahi's return.

"We will be watching very carefully to see what they do upon his return and we have told them that this will be something that will potentially affect our future relations," Crowley said.

If Khadafi "wants to be seen as a responsible leader in the region and beyond, this will be an opportunity for him to prove it," he said.

The United States expressed anger and regret as Megrahi left jail in Scotland.

"On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones. We recognize the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who represented relatives of many young victims of the tragedy as a senator from New York, said Washington was "deeply disappointed."

The release was a bitter blow to American relatives of Lockerbie victims, many of whom were students returning home from Europe for Christmas after student exchange visits.

Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora, said the Scottish government's decision was "appalling."

"You want to feel sorry for anyone, please feel sorry for me, feel sorry for my poor daughter, her body falling a mile through the air," Cohen told CNN.

"This is 270 people dead, this is a convicted mass murderer and terrorist. I have no doubt about his guilt," she said, arguing that Britain's zeal to exploit oil fields in rehabilitated Libya were at the root of the decision.

"Are we so devastatingly weak now? Have we lost all of our moral fiber that you can say that Megrahi can be released from prison for compassionate release?"

Bert Ammerman, who lost his brother in the disaster, asked in a television interview "where is the compassion for the victims and the families that have to live with this for the rest of our lives?"

MacAskill said Megrahi could return to Libya to die because Scots law required that "justice be served but mercy be shown."

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, was the worst terrorist attack committed in Britain.

Megrahi was convicted in 2001 after a trial held under Scottish jurisdiction at a special court in the Netherlands.