By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 22, 2009
LONDON, Aug. 21 -- Britain and the United States reacted angrily Friday to homecoming celebrations for a former Libyan secret service agent, convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, who was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds a day earlier.
President Obama said the jubilant welcome Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi received was "highly objectionable."
Arriving at an airport near Tripoli, Libya, Megrahi was met by hundreds of people, some waving Libyan and Scottish flags, some throwing flower petals. The scene was in stark contrast to his departure from Scotland, where a cluster of local residents jeered at the convoy taking Megrahi to the Glasgow airport.
Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, told the BBC that the celebratory images were "deeply upsetting." He warned: "How the Libyan government handles itself in the next few days will be very significant in the way the world views Libya's reentry into the civilized community of nations."
Megrahi, who is dying from prostate cancer, served eight years of a life sentence for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The airliner exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people, 189 of them American.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that the Tripoli scenes were "outrageous and disgusting." He added: "We continue to express our condolences to the families that lost a loved one as a result of this terrorist murder."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had written to Libya's leader, Moammar Gaddafi, on Thursday, ahead of Megrahi's release, urging that the country act "with sensitivity," a spokesman at his office said.
But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said the rapturous homecoming was "perfectly normal." He said that Gaddafi, who has long campaigned for Megrahi's release, would want to present a success and that most Libyans think he is innocent. "It was foolish to ask for a quiet reception when it wasn't going to happen," Miles said.
For years, the West has castigated Libya and its eccentric leader with trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But the country that Gaddafi has ruled for 40 years has slowly started to come in from the cold, sharing intelligence information on radical Islamist groups and abandoning its secret nuclear weapons program.
In recent years, foreign oil companies have flooded the resource-rich country, seeking opportunities for investment. Next month, Gaddafi is expected to make his first trip to the United States, where he is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly.
On Friday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Megrahi made no public appearances and the government made no public statements, according to the Associated Press.
Tony Kelly, one of Megrahi's attorneys, said in an interview that he plans to visit his client in Tripoli in the next few weeks to discuss his next steps. "I find it highly likely that he will want to put something in the public domain, but if, when and how that would happen are still to be determined," he said.
The Scottish Parliament is to reconvene Monday, a week early, to discuss the Scottish justice secretary's decision to release Megrahi.