LONDON, (Reuters) – Britain on Friday condemned celebrations in Tripoli to mark the return of the Lockerbie bomber, and scrambled to deflect international fallout from the decision to free him on humanitarian grounds.
“The sight of a mass murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Tripoli is deeply upsetting, deeply distressing, above all for the 270 families who grieve every day for the loss of their loved ones 21 years ago,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told BBC Radio.
“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 civilised community of nations,” he added.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday asking for the homecoming to be handled with sensitivity, a spokesman said.
Miliband dismissed claims that the British government had wanted Megrahi to be freed to bolster diplomatic and commercial ties with Libya and was content to let Scotland’s devolved government take the blame for an unpopular decision.
“That is a slur both on myself and the government,” he said, adding that no pressure had been put on the Scottish government.
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.
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. The bombing killed 270 people, 189 of them American.
Washington described the release as a mistake.
More than 1,000 young Libyans gathered at an airport in Tripoli to welcome Megrahi and cheered and waved national flags as his car sped away. Pictures of the blue and white Scottish flag being waved were shown on British television.
Large public gatherings are rare and are usually tightly controlled in Libya.
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 devolved 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.
The case has added to tensions between the devolved government led by the separatist Scottish National Party and the British government led by the Labour party.