THE HAGUE — More than a decade after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, two suspects in the bombing were handed over to United Nations officials in Libya on Monday and flown here to face trial for murder before a panel of Scottish judges.
As part of the internationally brokered deal for securing the pair's arrest, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan promptly suspended economic sanctions that were imposed on Libya in 1992.
U.S. and British leaders, along with many families of the victims, hailed the detention as an important step on the road to justice in the Dec. 21, 1988, terrorist attack, in which 189 Americans died.
The suspects, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, 46, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 42, alleged Libyan intelligence agents, were given what amounted to an official send-off from the Libyan capital, Tripoli. A ceremony organized by the Foreign Ministry was attended by about 40 dignitaries from Arab and African countries.
Dressed in business suits, the accused waved to supporters and flashed V signs as they boarded a U.N. flight to the Netherlands, each accompanied by a brother and a lawyer.
The suspects have said they are innocent.
"We are confident in ourselves. The days will prove that what we are saying is true," Megrahi said before boarding the plane.
Their exact destination was kept secret for security reasons until they had landed at Valkenburg Air Base outside The Hague and been safely turned over to Dutch police.
"The transfer took place in a very dignified manner today," said U.N. legal advisor Hans Corell, who accompanied the suspects on the 3 1/2-hour flight. He said the flight took place in an atmosphere of "friendly surrender."
"Let us hope the proceedings before the court will be allowed to take place with the same dignity and with due respect to the court which is about to try two persons who, at this stage under international law, have the right to be presumed innocent," Corell said.
On Monday night, the two were formally "extradited" to Scottish officials and transferred to Camp Zeist, a former U.S. air base about 30 miles east of The Hague. The facility has been converted into a high-security prison and court complex and declared Scottish territory for the duration of the trial.
U.S. and British officials say they have evidence showing that the suspects planted the bomb on the Pan Am flight in a suitcase that was loaded at London's Heathrow Airport after being transferred from Frankfurt, Germany.
The two men were indicted for the bombing in November 1991, and economic sanctions were imposed the following year in an effort to get Libya to hand them over.
But the Libyan government refused to extradite the suspects to Britain or the United States, insisting that they would not receive a fair trial in either country. Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi was pressing for trial in a "neutral" country by a panel of international judges.
With South African President Nelson Mandela and Saudi Arabian officials mediating, the U.S. and Britain agreed to a third-country trial in August, and last month Kadafi agreed that the proceedings could be held in the Netherlands before a panel of Scottish judges. He said he would hand over the suspects by April 6 in exchange for an immediate lifting of sanctions.
The trial is to take place under Scottish law because the airliner was blown up over Scotland. Eleven people in the town of Lockerbie died along with the 259 passengers and crew members on board the plane.
Among the victims were 35 Syracuse University students coming home for Christmas from their studies in London.
President Clinton welcomed the hand-over, declaring that "the road to justice has begun," and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called it "the culmination of a long period of intense but patient diplomacy."
Reaction from American relatives of victims ranged from cautious optimism to angry skepticism.
"I'm not as happy as you might think," said Daniel Cohen of Cape May, N.J., who lost his only child, Theodora, in the bombing. "They've sent over the hit men, and they've insulated the godfather--Kadafi. And that ain't justice."
"I think it is a travesty," said Stephanie Bernstein, a psychotherapist from Chevy Chase, Md., whose 36-year-old husband, Michael, was killed. "We have a political solution that will undermine justice. It is a sad day."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger spoke by phone with 15 family members who pressed for U.S. support for a televised trial.
British relatives expressed relief that the hand-over had taken place but said they hoped the search for others responsible for the attack would continue.