Britain, US slam Libya over bomber

LONDON: Britain and the United States reacted with fury Friday at a hero's welcome given to the freed Lockerbie bomber on his return to Libya, warning Tripoli of serious diplomatic repercussions.

In a first sign of possible fallout, Britain was reported to be reconsidering an upcoming royal visit to Libya following the rapturous homecoming accorded to Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi.

And in Washington the White House warned Libya on Friday that it was sending "the wrong message" by its treatment of Megrahi, the only person found guilty of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988.

"It is disturbing to see images suggesting that Megrahi was accorded a hero's welcome instead of being treated as a convicted murderer," said a spokesman, calling it "deeply offensive" to relatives of Lockerbie victims.

Hundreds of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags greeted Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, when he arrived in Tripoli late Thursday on a Libyan jet sent to pick him up from Scotland.

Megrahi, jailed for life in a Scottish jail in 2001 for killing 270 people on board the 747 and on the ground, returned with an official delegation including Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam.

The scenes of jubilation came despite a call by Washington that it would be monitoring reactions carefully, while President Barack Obama said he believed the Scottish government had blundered in approving the 57-year-old's release.

On Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband slammed the welcome accorded to Megrahi. "Obviously the sight of a mass murderer getting a hero's welcome in Tripoli is deeply upsetting, deeply distressing," he told the BBC.

"It's very important that Libya knows... that how the Libyan government handles itself in the next few days... will be very significant in the way the world views Libya's re-entry into the civilised community of nations," he said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown also wrote to Kadhafi to urge his country to "act with sensitivity" following Megrahi's return, according to Brown's office.

And in a sign of potential strains, a planned visit to Libya by the Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth II's second oldest son, was being reviewed, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for Prince Andrew said only that the early September trip had been "in its planning stages", while the Foreign Office said: "We have not received an invitation to attend.

"We will take a decision only if and when an invitation is posted to us," said a Foreign Office spokeswoman.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond meanwhile defended the decision to release Megrahi taken by Kenny MacAskill, his justice minister.

"This case... was always going to divide opinion, that's inevitable," he said, adding: "All that we can do is to take a decision in the interests of justice, with no ulterior motives whatsoever."

Salmond also added to the chorus of criticism over Megrahi's reception.

"I don't think that was wise and I don't think that was the right thing to do," he said.

However Libya's former ambassador to London, Ahmed Zwei, said Megrahi deserved his country's gratitude.

"We consider Megrahi to be a fighter who made sacrifices for his country and we should respect him," he told AFP.

Announcing his decision Thursday, MacAskill said "our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown".

Doctors say Megrahi may have less than three months to live but victims' relatives lined up to condemn the decision.

"You commit mass murder, an act of terror, kill all of those innocent young people... and you are released for compassion?" said Susan Cohen, whose only daughter Theodora was killed in the attack on December 21, 1988.

A total of 189 Americans were killed in the bombing, the worst attack carried out by extremists in Britain.

The release prompted heavy press criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Here is deep injustice. Here is callous disregard for the theft of so many lives, as well as for the pain of loved ones and friends," said The New York Daily News.

Most British newspapers also said Megrahi should have remained behind bars.

"The decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was taken with all due consideration and compassion. But it is the wrong decision all the same," said an editorial in The Times.