Scottish Leader Defends Bomber Release

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LONDON -- Scotland's government defended itself Sunday against unrelenting criticism from the U.S. over the decision to free the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber on compassionate grounds.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a Libyan convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 airline bombing, was released Thursday because he is terminally ill with prostate cancer. He has returned to his native Libya to die.

His release was met with outrage by families of the U.S. victims of the bombing and criticized by President Barack Obama as "highly objectionable."

FBI director Robert Mueller said in a letter to Scotland's government that al-Megrahi's release would give comfort to terrorists all over the world. Speaking Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that releasing the bomber was "obviously a political decision."

Scottish First Minister

But Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond told BBC Radio that it was wrong to assume that all those affected by the bombing were opposed to al-Megrahi's release.

"I understand the huge and strongly held views of the American families, but that's not all the families who were affected by Lockerbie," Salmond said. "As you're well aware, a number of the families, particularly in the U.K., take a different view and think that we made the right decision."

British lawmakers expressed concern about a possible souring of relations between the London and Washington over the issue. "I hope that there is no fallout from this for Scotland, and I hope that there is no fallout from this for the U.K. in terms of our relationship with the U.S., which is a key relationship for us," British employment minister Jim Knight told Sky News television.

The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in Britain's worst terrorist attack.

Britain and the U.S. have criticized the lavish reception al-Megrahi received Thursday, when a flag-waving crowd of hundreds greeted him at Tripoli's airport. Britain is reconsidering a planned visit to Libya by Prince Andrew, a British trade envoy, in response.

"This is a real setback for the anti-terrorist cause and takes our relations with Libya back to where they were for too long, a bad place," U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, told CNN.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office said Sunday he would go ahead with a trip to Libya on Aug. 30, despite international protests over al-Megrahi's welcome. Berlusconi had long planned to meet with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to mark the first anniversary of an important immigration accord that has helped stem the tide of illegal migrants reaching Italian shores.

But a Berlusconi ally, Margherita Boniver, told Corriere della Sera that the premier would "find the right words to express how we feel about such a serious episode."

Some bereaved relatives, particularly in Britain, dispute al-Megrahi's 2001 conviction, and a 2007 Scottish judicial review of his case found grounds for an appeal. He was convicted largely on the evidence of a Maltese shopkeeper, who identified al-Megrahi as having bought a shirt - scraps of which were later found wrapped around the bomb.

Al-Megrahi Released

Al-Megrahi has maintained his innocence, but last week dropped his appeal so that he could be released on compassionate grounds.

The British and Scottish governments have denied that they struck a deal with Libya to free the Lockerbie bomber in return for greater access to the country's oil and gas.

Libyan officials have claimed al-Megrahi's fate had formed part of trade talks in recent years, while the country's leader Moammar Gadhafi on Friday thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth II for "encouraging the Scottish government" to take their decision - a claim denied by both Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

Lieberman said allegations al-Megrahi's fate was tied to British oil interests were shocking, and urged Brown to authorize an inquiry into the circumstances of the release.

"I don't want to believe that they are true, but they are hanging so heavily in the air that I hope that our friends in Britain will convene an independent investigation of this action by the Scottish justice minister to release a mass murderer," he told CNN.

Brown's office insists that the government in London does not meddle in the work of Scotland's administration - which has wide powers over domestic issues, but has no say in areas such as defense or foreign affairs.

"No one I think seriously believes we made any other decision except for the right reasons," Salmond said. "I think it was the right decision. I also absolutely know it was for the right reasons."

He said al-Megrahi's release was consistent with Scotland's legal system, which allows for the release of prison inmates who are terminally ill.


Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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