EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds Thursday, letting the Libyan go home to die despite American pleas to show no mercy for the man responsible for the 1988 attack that killed 270 people.
U.S. President Barack Obama declared the decision to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi "a mistake," and said he should be placed under house arrest on his return to Libya, rather the feted with a hero's welcome.
Al-Megrahi, 57, left Scotland's Greenock Prison and flew to Libya on an Airbus sent to Glasgow Airport, still insisting he was innocent.
"We have been in contact with the Scottish government indicating that we objected to this," Obama said in an interview from the White House with Philadelphia-based radio talk show host Michael Smerconish. "And we thought it was a mistake."
Obama said his administration had called on Libya to ensure that al-Megrahi is "not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest."
Announcing the release, Scotland's justice secretary insisted freeing the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber was an expression of the Scottish people's humanity -- a decision rejected by many in the U.S.
"I think it's appalling, disgusting and so sickening I can hardly find words to describe it," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, New Jersey, whose 20-year-old daughter Theodora died in the attack. "This isn't about compassionate release. This is part of give-Gadhafi-what-he-wants-so-we-can-have-the-oil."
Some men outside the prison made obscene gestures as al-Megrahi's prison van drove by toward the airport.
Al-Megrahi, who had served only eight years of his life sentence, was recently given only months to live after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said although al-Megrahi had not shown compassion to his victims -- many of whom were American college students flying home to New York for Christmas -- MacAskill was motivated by Scottish values to show mercy.
"Some hurts can never heal, some scars can never fade," MacAskill said. "Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive ... However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."
Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. He was sentenced to life in prison. The airliner exploded over Scotland and all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when it crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
The former Libyan intelligence officer was sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison for Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. But a 2007 review of his case found grounds for an appeal of his conviction, and many in Britain believe he is innocent.
In a statement following his release, al-Megrahi protested his innocence. "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," he said.
Al-Megrahi's conviction was largely based on the testimony of a shopkeeper who identified him as having bought a man's shirt in his store in Malta. Scraps of the garment were later found wrapped around a timing device discovered in the wreckage of the airliner. Critics of al-Megrahi's conviction question the reliability of the store owner's evidence.
In his statement, al-Megrahi said he believed the truth behind the Lockerbie bombing may now never be known.
"I had most to gain and nothing to lose about the whole truth coming out -- until my diagnosis of cancer," he said, referring to an appeal against his conviction that he dropped in order to be freed. "To those victims' relatives who can bear to hear me say this, they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered."
MacAskill said he stood by al-Megrahi's conviction for "the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed on U.K. soil."
He said he had ruled out sending the bomber back to Libya under a prisoner-transfer agreement, saying the U.S. victims had been given assurances that al-Megrahi would serve out his sentence in Scotland. But he said that as a prisoner given less than three months to live by doctors, al-Megrahi was eligible for compassionate release.
Compassionate release is an established feature of the British and Scottish judicial systems when a prisoner is near death. According to officials, there have been 30 requests for release on compassionate grounds in Scotland over the last decade, 23 of which were approved. Scotland, which is part of Britain, has a separate legal system.
"I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion. It's an utter insult and utterly disgusting," said Kara Weipz, of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, whose 20-year-old brother Richard Monetti was on board Flight 103. "It's horrible. I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."
Al-Megrahi's return will be a landmark event in Libya. His countrymen see him as an innocent victim scapegoated by the West in a campaign to turn their country into an international pariah. Many will also view his release as a moral victory for their country.
He will arrive Thursday night at Meetiga military airport on the outskirts of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. A few hundred Libyan youths prepared to greet him, with Libyan songs blaring in the background. Some were dressed in T-shirts bearing al-Megrahi's picture and carried placards with his image. Others carried rolled up Libyan flags or miniature blue-and-white Scottish flags.
"I'm happy" about his release, said Mohammed, one of the youth group members who would only give his first name.
It was not immediately clear whether al-Megrahi would be taken to meet Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi or go directly to a hospital for medical care.
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics following the Sept. 11 attacks. He renounced terrorism, dismantled Libya's secret nuclear program, accepted his government's responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families.
Western energy companies -- including Britain's BP PLC -- have moved into Libya in an effort to tap the country's vast oil and gas wealth.
Gadhafi lobbied hard for the return of al-Megrahi, an issue which took on an added sense of urgency when al-Megrahi was diagnosed with cancer last year.
Al-Megrahi was a well-known figure in the Scottish community near his prison, receiving regular treatment at the hospital and visited often by his wife and children, who lived in Scotland for several years.
Briton Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on Flight 103, welcomed the Libyan's release, saying many questions remained about what led to the bomb that exploded in the cargo hold.
"I think he should be able to go straight home to his family and spend his last days there," Swire told the BBC. "I don't believe for a moment this man was involved in the way he was found to be involved."
Among the Lockerbie victims was John Mulroy, the AP's director of international communication, who died along with five members of his family.
Associated Press Writers Tarek El-Tablawy in Tripoli, Libya, Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey, Meera Selva in London, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jessica M. Pasko in Albany, New York, Jim Hannah in Dayton, Ohio, and Robert Burns, in Washington, contributed to this report.