Sunday, August 23, 2009

LONDON | Britain rejected Saturday any suggestion it had struck a deal with Libya to free the Lockerbie bomber - questions that arose when Moammar Gadhafi publicly thanked British officials as he embraced the man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 airline bombing.

Col. Gadhafi praised Prime Minister Gordon Brown and members of the royal family by name for what he described as influencing the decision to let the terminally ill Abdel Basset al-Megrahi return home to die. Thousands greeted al-Megrahi at the airport as he arrived in Tripoli after being freed Thursday from a Scottish prison.

But British officials insisted they did not tell Scottish justice officials what to do - and in any case, they could not, because the decision was not theirs to make.

“The idea that the British government and the Libyan government would sit down and somehow barter over the freedom or the life of this Libyan prisoner and make it form part of some business deal … it’s not only wrong, it’s completely implausible and actually quite offensive,” Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told reporters in London.

Britain has walked a fine line on the issue, as the government in London must distance itself from local affairs in Scotland. While outraged at the jubilant reception al-Megrahi received in Libya, British leaders have refrained from criticizing the decision to free the man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a decision made in Edinburgh under Scotland’s separate judicial system.

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill decided to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because the Libyan has prostate cancer and was given only months to live, when assessed by four doctors. Compassionate leave for dying inmates is a regular feature of Scottish justice.

In Washington Saturday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III blasted Mr. MacAskill for allowing the Lockerbie bomber to return home, saying the decision gave comfort to terrorists around the world.

“Your action,” he wrote Mr. MacAskill, “makes a mockery of the grief of the families who lost their own on December 21, 1988.”

President Obama earlier criticized Libya’s celebration of al-Megrahi’s return as “highly objectionable.”

The Scottish government reacted sharply to Mr. Mueller’s comments.

“Mr. Mueller was involved in the Lockerbie case, and therefore has strong views, but he should also be aware that while many families have opposed Mr. MacAskill’s decision, many others have supported it,” the Scottish government said.

Most of those killed were Americans, and their families have been scathing in their criticism of the Libyan’s release.

As the cameras rolled in Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi hugged al-Megrahi in a meeting Friday and al-Megrahi kissed the Libyan leader’s hand.

Libyan television showed pictures of Col. Gadhafi singling out Mr. Brown, as well as “the Queen of Britain, Elizabeth, and Prince Andrew, who all contributed to encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacles.”

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said Saturday the release was “entirely a matter for the Scottish government.”

While Britain does have oil interests in Libya - notably a $900 million exploration deal between BP PLC and Libya’s National Oil Co. - they are small compared to investments by Italy’s Eni SpA.

Even so, Col. Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, said al-Megrahi’s release was a constant point of discussion during trade talks. In comments aired on the Libyan television station he owns, he said those discussions stretched back to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government.

Mr. Blair, who resigned in 2007, told CNN on Saturday that the Libyans did raise the issue of al-Megrahi but he told them he did not have the power to release the bomber.

Al-Megrahi has maintained his innocence. In an interview published Saturday in the Times of London, he promised to release what he described as evidence that would exonerate him.

“There was a miscarriage of justice,” he said.

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