- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

EDINBURGH, Scotland | Scotland’s justice minister on Monday defended his much-criticized decision to free the Lockerbie bomber, as the U.S. State Department said that although it disagreed “passionately,” the move would not affect relations between the United States and Britain.

The Scottish administration has faced unrelenting criticism from the both the U.S. government and the families of American victims of the 1988 airline bombing since it announced last week it was freeing Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The terminally ill al-Megrahi, who has prostate cancer, returned to his native Libya on Thursday, where he was greeted by crowds waving Libyan and Scottish flags.

The United States will stand by Britain, even though it believes the decision was a mistake, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

“We made it quite clear that we disagreed passionately with this decision, because we thought it sent the wrong signal to not only the families, but also to terrorists. But I really discourage you from thinking that we necessarily have to have some kind of tit-for-tat retaliation because of it. I just don’t see it — not with Britain. Not with Scotland either,” Mr. Kelly said. Mr. Kelly’s words follow days of criticism from top U.S. officials.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill doggedly defended the decision Monday but said Libya had broken a promise by giving the convicted terrorist a hero’s welcome. Scottish lawmakers came back from summer vacation a week early to debate the issue.

Britain, meanwhile, scrapped a trade visit to Libya by Prince Andrew amid controversy over the release.

Mr. MacAskill said the warm homecoming for al-Megrahi breached assurances from Libyan authorities that “any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion.”

“It is a matter of great regret that Mr. Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner,” Mr. MacAskill told the Scottish parliament. “It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie.”

The decision has prompted calls for a trade boycott of Scotland and widespread criticism of the nationalist government in Edinburgh.

In an emotional debate Monday, Mr. MacAskill said his decision “was not based on political, economic or diplomatic considerations.”

“This was my decision and my decision alone,” he said. “I stand by it and I live with the consequences.”

Other lawmakers said the move embarrassed Scotland.

The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed all 259 people on the plane — most of them American — and 11 people on the ground. Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, is the only person convicted of the bombing.

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