LONDON — The only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland -- a terrorist attack that killed 270 people, most of them Americans -- was flown home to Libya from Britain to a hero's welcome Thursday after serving eight years of his life sentence.
The Scottish government granted early release to Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi on "compassionate grounds," saying the 57-year-old, suffering from prostate cancer, had only a few months to live. The controversial move was made over vehement objections from the United States and some of the families of those killed, though relatives of some other victims welcomed it as the right decision for a wrongly condemned man.
"Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown," Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said. He added that Megrahi "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. . . . It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."
That was scant satisfaction for the White House, which swiftly deplored the release.
"As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
It was a rare diplomatic dust-up between the U.S. and its closest ally. But the incident is unlikely to cause any real damage to the Anglo-American "special relationship," in part because the decision emanated from the devolved government in Scotland, run by the Scottish Nationalist Party, rather than the central government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London.
Megrahi's early release allows him to spend the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in his homeland. Images televised from Libya showed him arriving at the military airport in Tripoli, the capital, to a greeting by thousands of people, a display that could strain relations between London and Tripoli that had been on the mend.
After his release, Megrahi issued a statement carried by BBC that said, in part:
"This horrible ordeal is not ended by my return to Libya. It may never end for me until I die. Perhaps the only liberation for me will be death. And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: All of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do."
The decision to let him go had been widely anticipated and debated after word of its likelihood leaked last week. But the issue grew more fraught after a group of U.S. senators and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in forcefully against freeing him.
The controversy also reopened divisions among the victims' families, between those who want Megrahi to spend the rest of his life -- however short -- in jail for committing mass murder and others who believe he was wrongly convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence gleaned from a botched investigation.
Authorities linked Megrahi, a suspected Libyan spy, to the Lockerbie attack through pieces of clothing from Malta that had been wrapped around the bomb. Investigators traced the purchase of the clothes to Megrahi.
The bomb exploded in the luggage hold of the London-to-New York airliner Dec. 21, 1988, killing 259 people on board and 11 on the ground, and forever twinning the name of Lockerbie, a small Scottish town, with Britain's deadliest terrorist attack.
Libya handed over Megrahi in 1999, at a time when leader Moammar Kadafi was eager to ease his country's pariah status. The United Nations quickly lifted sanctions on Tripoli, and Western companies have since flocked to the North African nation in hope of exploring the vast oil and gas fields thought to lie beneath its soil.
Megrahi was tried and convicted before Scottish judges at a special court convened in the Netherlands. A second Libyan defendant was acquitted.
But an independent judicial commission in Scotland concluded two years ago that one of the prosecution witnesses was unreliable and that the link between Megrahi and the clothes from Malta was dubious. The commission recommended that the case be reviewed, giving a boost to those who believed the Libyan to be innocent.
"He should be able to go straight home to his family and spend his last days there," Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, told the BBC. "I don't believe for a moment that this man was involved in the way that he was found to have been involved."
Swire and others lashed out at the British government for allowing Megrahi to abandon an appeal of his conviction as a prelude to his early release, which makes it unlikely that the case will be reopened. Critics allege that some evidence was suppressed and that the truth behind the Lockerbie bombing will remain hidden.
Others disagree with that view and with Megrahi's early release.
"I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion," Kara Weipz, a New Jersey woman who lost her brother in the bombing, told the Associated Press. "It's horrible. I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."
MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, acknowledged that his decision would anger many. But he said it was necessary to uphold Scottish judicial values, which include a tradition of compassionate release for the terminally ill. Doctors have given Megrahi about three months to live.
"He may die sooner; he may live longer," MacAskill said. "I can only base my decision on the medical advice I have before me."