Lockerbie bomber celebrated in Libya

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KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Former Libyan agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi is spending his first full day back in his home country. Yesterday the Scottish justice minister freed the man convicted of killing 270 people in the Lockerbie airline bombing stressing that al-Megrahi is terminally ill. The decision to release him was controversial in itself but the celebrations marking his return to Libya has generated a fresh wave of anger. The World's Laura Lynch reports.

LAURA LYNCH: The convicted murderer who hid his face from the cameras as he left Scotland found adoring crowds as he descended from the plane in Tripoli. A young girl gave him flowers. Young men chanted and sang and on the streets of the capital Libyan's welcomed al-Megrahi back.

TRANSLATOR: This is our biggest celebration and happiness. This person is innocent. Thank God he's coming home.

TRANSLATOR: This is really great, great news. There's doubt it gladdens the hearts of all Libyans and all people around the world who care about justice.

LYNCH: Libyans are suddenly praising Scots making a point of waving the Scottish flag during the airport celebration. That made for uncomfortable viewing for some back in Glasgow, even those who supported al-Megrahi's release.

SCOTTISH WOMAN 1: I think him being released was fine because he's ill but I was disappointed that they celebrated it when they got back.

SCOTTISH WOMAN 2: He's getting home to his family and the people that were killed didn't get home to their family. I don't agree with it.

SCOTTISH MAN: That's just totally wrong. This does Scotland no good at all.

LYNCH: The condemnation grew much sharper at the political level. Britain wrote to the Libyan government yesterday pleading with officials to keep al-Megrahi's return low key. Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled the homecoming anything but.

DAVID MILIBAND: The sight of a mass murderer getting a hero's welcoming in Tripoli is deeply upsetting above all for the 270 families who grieve everyday for the loss of their loved ones 21 years ago but also for anyone who's got ounce of humanity in them.

LYNCH: In Washington White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed the sentiment. President Obama's request to put al-Megrahi under house arrest was ignored.

ROBERT GIBBS: The images that we saw in Libya yesterday were outrageous and disgusting.

LYNCH: Scotland's government has faced the brunt of the criticism for deciding to allow the release in the first place. Officials there thought they had a deal with Libya � no party, no celebration. So Scottish leader Alex Salmond didn't like the images either but he still defends the decision no matter what Americans think or say.

ALEX SALMOND: We have to do what we think is right and proper and that's what the justice secretary did. You know our relationship with America is a strong and enduring one. It doesn't depend on always reaching agreement. Well that can't be the case.

LYNCH: Libyan specialist George Joffe of Cambridge University believes the government in Tripoli did make good on its promise � at least by Libyan standards.

GEORGE JOFFE: The fact is there was a small crowd that welcomed Mr. Megrahi back and since Libyans in their vast majority believe that he was in fact innocent anyway it's hardly surprising that they were there. The most important thing is that there was no Libyan minister there. Colonel Gadaffi himself wasn't there.

LYNCH: Nevertheless Britain is considering canceling what was to be a high-profile visit to Libya by Prince Andrew. Beyond that though there's little talk in either Washington or London about any further steps to punish Libya. Perhaps that's no surprise. After years of bitterness both the United States and Britain have worked hard to improve relations with Muammar Gadaffi � and both now have extensive business interests in the oil-rich nation. They may all believe now isn't the best time to mount fresh battles over a crime that happened more than two decades ago. For The World I'm Laura Lynch in London.