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UK says Labour government aided Libya over bomber release

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s former Labour government tried to make it easier for Libya to seek the Lockerbie bomber’s release, according to an official report published on Monday that could stoke anger in Washington.

Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was jailed for life for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. Scottish authorities freed him in August 2009 on compassionate grounds after concluding he had just months to live because of cancer. He is still alive

The report by Britain’s senior civil servant, Gus O’Donnell, said the government decided British interests would be hurt if he died in a Scottish jail because of “the extremely high priority attached to Mr Megrahi’s return by the Libyans.”

The British government developed a policy to help the Libyans make an appeal to the devolved Scottish government for Megrahi to be transferred under prisoner agreements or released on compassionate grounds, the report said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the report showed there was no conspiracy, as some in the United States had suggested, between British oil giant BP, which has interests in Libya, the Scottish government and London to free Megrahi.

“It was a decision taken by the Scottish government, the wrong decision, but their decision nevertheless,” Cameron told parliament.

Cameron, who took power after defeating Labour in an election in May and has regularly called the release a mistake, promised last year to publish documents reviewing it.

Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am 103, a group that represents the families of U.S. victims, said he did not believe the report’s conclusion.

“I think this is one more evidence of everyone pointing the finger at someone else for having made this decision,” Duggan told BBC television.

U.S. senator Charles Schumer, a long-standing champion for the victims, said it “strained credulity” that the British government’s position was not well known by the Scottish authorities, even if no formal pressure was applied.

“This report confirms what many of us have long suspected: the British government and BP wanted Megrahi released so that an oil deal being negotiated with Libya could go forward,” Schumer said.

Megrahi was given a triumphant homecoming in Libya and is still alive nearly two years later, despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008, causing anger in the United States because 189 of the 270 victims were American.

O’Donnell’s report found that there was no evidence that either the government in London or BP had applied pressure on the Scottish national authorities who ultimately decided to release Megrahi.

However, the report said Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government had taken steps after Megrahi was diagnosed that made it easier for Libya to appeal for his return.

Steps taken by London included ratifying a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, explaining to Libya how to apply for a transfer under that agreement or for compassionate release, and telling the Scottish government there was no legal barrier to a transfer.

BP and Scottish ministers have denied the oil company lobbied for Megrahi’s release.

Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York