Britain simmers over Lockerbie bomber release

By Alex Stevenson

The imperilled upcoming royal visit to Libya is the latest signal of London’s displeasure at Edinburgh’s decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi yesterday.

The BBC has reported that Prince Andrew’s scheduled visit to the north African country, due early next month, may no longer go ahead.

Cancelling the trip would be a firm response to Libya’s refusal to ensure Megrahi’s repatriation was the “low-key return” Downing Street says Gordon Brown had requested.

Conservative leader David Cameron has queried and criticised Gordon Brown’s failure to comment on Megrahi’s release yesterday.

Footage from Tripoli showed cancer-ridden Megrahi emerging from his aircraft to a cheering crowd. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s son praised the Scottish government for a “courageous decision”. Megrahi’s arrival was celebrated throughout Tripoli, where the terminally ill ex-prisoner was paraded through the city’s centre.

David Miliband responded with comments which sought to position Britain closer to Washington than Edinburgh.

The foreign secretary, who said he did not interfere in the Scottish government’s decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, signalled his outrage at the treatment of the 57-year-old Libyan on the return to his home country.

Comment: MacAskill’s moment

“The sight of a mass murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Tripoli is deeply disturbing, deeply distressing. for anyone who’s got an ounce of humanity in them,” Mr Miliband said on the Today programme this morning.

His angry response echoed the comments of US president Barack Obama, who condemned Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s decision to free Megrahi as a “mistake”.

The US has been outspoken in its belief that the Libyan bomber should not have been released. Doctors expect Megrahi has around three months left to live, a factor Mr MacAskill said meant “compassion” justified his decision.

Under the terms of the devolution settlement it was Edinburgh, not London, which held the power to release or keep in prison Megrahi, who was convicted in 2001 and was serving a 27-year sentence.

Mr Miliband has struggled to balance impartiality with the international implications of the Scottish National party government’s action.

This morning he sought to distinguish the thinking behind Megrahi’s release from the way he had been treated on arrival in Libya.

“There is a Scottish judicial system that has been administered by the devolved government in the way appropriate to our constitution. There is a separate issue about how Mr Megrahi is received in Libya,” he added.

“I think it’s very important that how the Libyan government handles itself in the next few days will be very significant in the way the world views the Libyan government’s re-entry into the world of nations.”

Mr Cameron wrote to Mr Brown this afternoon to criticise him for failing to express an opinion.

“The fact that the decision to release was taken by the Scottish justice secretary does not preclude you, as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, from now expressing your opinion on a subject that is of great public concern, and which affects Britain’s international reputation and our relations with our allies,” he wrote.

“It is curious that while others have commented, Britain’s own prime minister has not. I hope you will now take the opportunity to do so. We are entitled to know what you and your ministers have said to the Libyan authorities on this matter, and to the Scottish justice secretary.”

“Above all, I believe that the public are entitled to know what you think of the decision to release Megrahi, and whether you consider it was right or wrong.”

The Lockerbie bombing was the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated in Britain. Two hundred and seventy people died on December 21st 1988 when an explosion destroyed Pan Am flight 103.