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Obama calls Lockerbie bomber release a mistake

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States strongly condemned Thursday’s decision by Scottish authorities to free a terminally ill Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing, and said he should be held under house arrest in Libya.

Washington had lobbied for Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to remain in prison, where he was serving a life sentence as the only person convicted in the plane downing that killed 270 people, 189 of them American.

“We have been in contact with the Scottish government indicating that we objected to it,” President Barack Obama said of Thursday’s release.

“We thought it was a mistake. We are now in contact with the Libyan government, and want to make sure that if in fact this transfer has taken place, he is not welcomed back in some way but instead should be under house arrest,” Obama said in response to a question during a radio broadcast with a talk-show host.

The Scottish government announced earlier on Thursday that it was freeing Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer. Megrahi left Scotland on a flight home to Libya.

The top U.S. law enforcement official and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed dismay over the release. The State Department indicated that future ties between Washington and Tripoli would be influenced by how Libya treated Megrahi when he returned home.

Washington’s rebukes to the Scottish government represented a rare disagreement between normally close allies.

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The United States counted Britain as one of its strongest partners in the war on terrorism that former President George W. Bush declared after the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks on the United States.

“The interests of justice have not been served by this decision,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist.”

Clinton called the bombing a “heinous crime” and said Washington had lobbied to keep Megrahi, 57, behind bars.

“We have continued to communicate our long-standing position to U.K. government officials and Scottish authorities that Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland,” she said in a statement.

Pan Am Flight 103 was en route from London to New York when it blew up in mid-air over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.

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State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said aside from voicing strong disagreement with Scotland over the move, Washington had also urged Libya not to treat Megrahi as a hero on his return.

“We hope the return will be low-key, and he will not be celebrated as a hero, which he is not,” said Crowley. “What happens when he returns to Libya will have an influence on the future direction of our relationship,” he said.

“What we’re mostly concerned about is the mixed message that this sends in terms of those who have in the past or those who might contemplate in the future acts of political violence.”

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Megrahi’s release came against the backdrop of improving relations between Libya and Western nations, spurred by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s decision in 2003 to drop his nuclear weapons program. The United States and Britain had ostracized Gaddafi following the Lockerbie bombing.

A senior State Department official made clear that punitive measures could result if Libya treated Megrahi as a hero, but declined to be more specific.

“Gaddafi is looking for better relations with the United States and the international community and if he wants to be seen as a responsible leader in the region and beyond, this would be an opportunity for him to prove it,” said the official, who declined to be named.

U.S. politicians had tried to help families of Lockerbie victims keep Megrahi behind bars. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, where many of the victims were from, wrote to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill this week to call for Megrahi to remain in prison.

Suse Lowenstein, of Montauk, New York, whose son was killed at age 21, called the news of the release “devastating.”

“It is difficult for me to accept that the one man we had responsible for the murders of our son and the 270 victims in total is now going home to die in the arms of his family. It is just beyond comprehension.”

Megrahi lost an appeal against his conviction in 2002, but a Scottish review of his case ruled in 2007 that there may have been a miscarriage of justice.

Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Sue Pleming in Washington and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry