Britain hopes Libya keeps Lockerbie Bomber release anniversary low-key

A year after the 'dying' Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison, Libya is warned off 'tasteless' celebration.

A year after the Lockerbie bomber was released from a Scottish prison, Britain warned Libya not to celebrate the anniversary today, saying to do so would be "tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive". Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi was thought to have only three months to live because of terminal prostate cancer when he was freed on compassionate grounds and returned to his homeland Libya to a hero's welcome.

But he has defied his prognosis, to the dismay of the mainly American relatives of the 270 people who died when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, four days before Christmas in 1988. Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, again defended his government's decision to free al Megrahi in a round of interviews Friday, telling the BBC it acted "in good faith on the information that was available at the time".

"No one could have absolute certainty [about how long al Megrahi would live]," Mr Salmond said. "That was a reasonable expectation of his life expectancy." Earlier, the UK Foreign Office issued a strongly-worded statement urging Libya not to hold celebrations honouring the only man "convicted for the worst act of terrorism in British history". "Particularly on this anniversary, we understand the continuing anguish that al Megrahi's release has caused his victims, both in the UK and the US," a spokesman said.

"Any celebration of al Megrahi's release will be tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive to the victims' families. We have made our concerns clear to the Libyan government." Britain's ambassador to Tripoli, Richard Northern, has told senior Libyan government officials that any public events honouring Megrahi could damage warming ties between the two countries, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Mr Salmond said that it would be "totally inappropriate" for Libya to celebrate the anniversary. Questions remain about the precise circumstances of the release, though, with US senators demanding more information on the case. The US Senate's foreign relations committee is to hold a hearing on al Megrahi in the coming weeks. This will examine whether BP, already facing intense pressure in the United States over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, played a part in securing al Megrahi's release in a bid to safeguard a $900 million (Dh3.3bn) exploration deal with Libya.

BP deny this and the Scottish government has refused to send ministers to Washington to appear before the hearing, saying there are no more documents it can release on the affair. Mr Salmond suggested today that he could be prepared to send his ministers to give evidence if an international inquiry was set up into the affair. "If there as to be a duly constituted international inquiry ... then of course we would cooperate fully," he said.

Most of those on board the passenger jet were from the United States, where many relatives strongly opposed 58-year-old al Megrahi's release after he had served eight years of a minimum 20-year term. Mary Kay Stratis, whose husband Elia was killed in the bombing, told the BBC: " "He's lived his life now as a free man surrounded by his family and certainly not a privilege that my husband had. We need some answers".

Some of those affected by the attack in Britain question whether al Megrahi was the real bomber. The campaign group Justice for Megrahi, whose committee members include Jim Swire, whose daughter was on board Flight 103, wants a full investigation into all circumstances of the attack. Father Patrick Keegans, Lockerbie's priest at the time, who lived on a street virtually destroyed by the plane's wing section, told AFP this week that al Megrahi's conviction did not stand up to scrutiny.

"Until the full truth is known, people can't lay this to rest because the truth allows us to deal with things and then reconstruct our lives," he said. * AFP