LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Britain on Friday condemned a “hero’s welcome” given to the newly released Lockerbie bomber, with London scrambling to stem fallout from the decision to free him on humanitarian grounds.
Former Libyan agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was serving a life sentence as the only person convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie which killed 270 people — 189 of them American.
Hundreds of young Libyans gathered at an airport in Tripoli to welcome Megrahi home on Thursday and cheered and waved national flags as his car sped away. Large public gatherings are rare and are usually tightly controlled in Libya.
“I think it was highly objectionable,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters at the White House, referring to the welcome Megrahi received.
“It is disturbing to see images suggesting that Megrahi was accorded a hero’s welcome instead of being treated as a convicted murderer,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton.
The United States government and relatives of victims of the bombing had condemned the decision by Scotland’s regional administration to release Megrahi, who is dying from cancer.
Some Scottish families of victims had supported the release and some have questioned whether Megrahi was ever involved in the bombing.
British government ministers, wary of upsetting one of its strongest international allies, came out in force on Friday to criticize the way Libya had handled Megrahi’s return.
“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 civilized community of nations,” foreign minister David Miliband said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown had written to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday to ask for the homecoming to be handled with sensitivity.
The White House had called for him to be placed under house arrest, and officials said on Friday the United States would be watching the Libyan’s government’s actions going forward.
“Celebrating this man who was convicted in a court of law as a terrorist would of course cause us to question that indeed they do want to move to a new phase in our relationship,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, referring to Libya.
The BBC reported that a visit planned for next month to bolster trade led by Prince Andrew, a son of Queen Elizabeth, had been put on hold.
Miliband dismissed claims the British government had wanted Megrahi to be freed to bolster diplomatic and commercial ties with Libya, which has the biggest oil reserves in Africa.
“That is a slur both on myself and the government,” he said, adding that no pressure had been put on the Scottish government.
The decision to release Megrahi was made by the devolved Scottish government, which controls several areas of its domestic policy.
Libyan state media had made no mention of Megrahi’s possible return but a newspaper close to leader Muammar Gaddafi’s reformist son, Saif al-Islam, was following his progress.
Islam, who accompanied Megrahi back to Libya, promised last year to work for Megrahi’s release and praised the British and Scottish authorities in words likely to add to their discomfort.
“I also personally thank our friends in the British government as they have had an important role in reaching this happy conclusion,” he said in a statement.
“I affirm that the Libyan people will not forget this brave stance from the governments of Britain and Scotland and that friendship between us will be enhanced forever. The page of the past has been turned and is now behind us,” he added.
The crowd that greeted them at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, a former U.S. air base, were mostly members of Libya’s National Youth Association which is close to Gaddafi’s son.
Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish government, condemned the celebrations.
“I don’t think the reception for Mr al-Megrahi was appropriate in Libya, I don’t think that was wise and I don’t think that was the right thing to do,” he said.
Additional reporting by Matt Falloon in London, Salah Sarrar in Tripoli, and Sue Pleming in Washington