TRIPOLI/LONDON (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hugged the convicted Lockerbie bomber and promised more cooperation with Britain in gratitude for his release, while London and Washington condemned his “hero’s welcome” home.
Meeting Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and his family late on Friday, Gaddafi thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth for “encouraging” Scotland to release the dying prisoner from a Scottish jail, Libyan news agency JANA reported.
After receiving a warm embrace from Gaddafi, Megrahi bent forward and kissed the leader’s hand, TV images showed.
“This step is in the interest of relations between the two countries ... and of the personal friendship between me and them and will be positively reflected for sure in all areas of cooperation between the two countries,” the Libyan leader said.
Gaddafi’s comments drew a flat denial from Britain that Megrahi’s release was in any way linked to business deals with Libya, which has Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. Britain said all responsibility for his release rested with Scotland, which runs its own judicial affairs.
“There is no deal — all decisions relating to Megrahi’s case have been exclusively for Scottish ministers, the Crown Office in Scotland and the Scottish judicial authorities,” a spokesman for the Foreign Office said.
“No deal has been made between the UK government and Libya in relation to Megrahi and any commercial interests.”
Scotland’s government on Thursday released Megrahi from a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland because he has terminal prostate cancer. The attack killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
“At this hour, I want to send a message to our friends in Scotland, the Scottish National Party and the first minister of Scotland, to congratulate them for their bravery,” JANA quoted Gaddafi as saying.
“Despite the unacceptable and illogical pressures against them, they took this humanitarian and brave decision.”
More than 1,000 young Libyans gathered at an airport in Tripoli on Thursday to welcome Megrahi home, cheering and waving national flags, images that angered Washington and London.
Megrahi promised in an interview with Britain’s Times newspaper published on Saturday that he would present new evidence before he died exonerating him of the bombing.
He dismissed the international furor over his release, saying President Barack Obama should know he would not be doing anything apart from going to hospital and waiting to die. Doctors say he may have less than three months to live.
“My message to the British and Scottish communities is that I will put out the evidence (to exonerate me) and ask them to be the jury,” Megrahi, sentenced in 2001, said without elaborating.
“(Obama) knows I’m a very ill person,” said Megrahi. “The only place I have to go is the hospital for medical treatment. I’m not interested in going anywhere else. Don’t worry, Mr Obama — it’s just three months (until I die).”
Relatives of many of the Americans who died in the Lockerbie attack have voiced disgust at Megrahi’s release and his reception back in Tripoli.
Gaddafi likened the shock of the Lockerbie relatives to that felt by Libyans in 2007 when Bulgarian medics, condemned to death for infecting Libyan children with HIV, were sent back to Bulgaria to serve life terms there, but immediately released.
Libya handed the nurses over to Bulgaria under heavy pressure from the West, advancing the long-isolated north African country’s efforts to emerge from diplomatic isolation.
“Is it that we don’t have feelings and they have?” Gaddafi was quoted by JANA as saying.
“The world was shocked and surprised that the condemned team were released before they descended from their plane at the airport in Bulgaria,” he said. “They received them as heroes.”
“Now that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi has been released from prison, illogical voices have been heard saying this is against the feelings of Lockerbie victims’ families.”
European governments including Britain’s are lobbying hard for business in Libya as it emerges from years of sanctions. Oil companies such as BP and Shell are among several British firms hoping to make big profits in the desert country.
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat; editing by Andrew Roche