NEW YORK (Reuters) - Families of U.S. victims of the 1988 bombing of a PanAm flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, said on Sunday the death of the convicted bomber did not ease their loss and the White House said it would not end the quest for justice.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, 60, the Libyan convicted of the bombing that killed 270 people, died at his home in the Libyan capital from complications from prostate cancer, his brother said on Sunday.
“Megrahi’s death concludes an unfortunate chapter following his release from prison in 2009 on medical grounds - a move we strongly opposed,” White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in Chicago, where President Barack Obama was hosting a summit of NATO allies.
Megrahi’s release on humanitarian grounds by Scottish officials infuriated families of the dead, 189 of whom were American, and drew sharp criticism from Washington after Megrahi arrived home in Libya to a hero’s welcome.
“We want to see justice for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and their families. We will continue working with our new partners in Libya toward a full accounting of (Muammar) Gaddafi’s horrific acts,” Vietor said.
Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of blowing up the plane, which was flying from London to New York, killing all 259 aboard and 11 people in the town of Lockerbie. He was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 because he had cancer and was expected to live only a few months.
“He got the ability to die with his family. My brother didn’t have the ability to have his family floating around him at 31,000 feet when he fell to the ground,” said Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tommy was killed on the plane at the age of 36.
“Why should I have any feelings? He goes to his own reward,” said Hope Asrelsky, 76, whose daughter Rachel was 21 and returning from studying in Italy when she was killed in the plane. “Go to hell if I care,” Asrelsky said.
Megrahi, the only person convicted for the bombing, was found guilty under Scottish law of secretly loading a suitcase bomb onto a plane at Malta’s Luqa Airport, where he was head of operations for Libyan Arab Airlines in December 1988.
He maintained he was innocent and debate has raged for years over his role in a bombing that is still under investigation.
Theories have floated that countries like Iran and Syria were involved in the attack, a belief held by some relatives of victims.
“I don’t know if he was totally guilty but we know he was involved,” said Babette Solon Hollister, 79, whose daughter Katherine was 20 when she was killed in the bombing. Now that he cannot be sought for information, she said, “I doubt anything will be resolved now.”
Two U.S. senators from home states of a number of the victims expressed anger that Megrahi was able to die at home.
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement Megrahi “died with American blood on his hands and will always be remembered as a murderer.”
“His death may bring some level of closure to the families of the victims but his misdeeds will never be forgotten and our pursuit of justice will continue,” Lautenberg said.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on CNN that Megrahi’s death meant the full truth about the bombing may never be known and questioned whether Megrahi was released from prison as part of a deal for Libyan oil.
“Both the Scottish and British governments have not been forthcoming,” Schumer said. “The whole deal smelled of a deal for oil for this man’s freedom and that was almost blasphemy given what a horrible person he was and the terrible destruction and tragedy that he caused. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it now.”
“It would have been better had he not died in freedom, had he died in prison,” Schumer said. “That’s what he deserved and I still believe that the Scottish government, perhaps with the participation of the British government, created a major injustice when they let him out.”
Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Chicago; Editing by Vicki Allen