TRIPOLI, Libya — The only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing returned home Thursday to a cheering crowd after his release from a Scottish prison – an outrage to many relatives of the 270 people who perished when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded.
President Barack Obama said the Scottish decision to free terminally ill Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was a mistake and said he should be under house arrest. Obama warned Libya not to give him a hero's welcome.
Despite the warning, thousands of young men were on hand at a Tripoli airport where al-Megrahi's plane touched down. Some threw flower petals as he stepped from the plane. He wore a a dark suit and a burgundy tie and appeared visibly tired.
He was accompanied by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who was dressed in a traditional white robe and golden embroidered vest. The son pledged last year to bring al-Megrahi home and raised his hand victoriously to the crowd as he exited the plane. They then sped off in a convoy of white sedans.
International photographers and camera crews – along with most Libyan broadcast media – were barred from filming the arrival at the airport, which decades ago had been part of a U.S. air base.
Al-Megrahi's release disgusted many victims' relatives.
"You get that lump in your throat and you feel like you're going to throw up," said Norma Maslowski, of Haddonfield, New Jersey, whose 30-year-old daughter, Diane, 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," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Her 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, was killed.
At home, al-Megrahi, 57, is seen as an innocent scapegoat the West used to turn this African nation into a pariah. At the airport, some wore T-shirts with his picture and waved Libyan and miniature blue-and-white Scottish flags. Libyan songs blared in the background.
"It's a great day for us," 24-year-old Abdel-Aal Mansour said. "He belongs here, at home."
Moammar 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 prostate cancer last year. He was recently given only months to live.
The former Libyan intelligence officer was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing on Dec. 21, 1988, and sentenced to life in prison for Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. The airliner exploded over Scotland and all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when it crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
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.
He was sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison. But a 2007 review of his case found grounds for an appeal, and many in Britain believe he is innocent. He served only eight years.
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."
He added that 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.
"I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion," said Kara Weipz, of Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Her 20-year-old brother Richard Monetti was on board the doomed flight. "I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."
As al-Megrahi's white van rolled down street outside Greenock Prison on his way to the airport in Glasgow, Scotland, some men on the roadside made obscene gestures. He later appeared on the airport tarmac dressed in a white tracksuit and baseball cap.
In a statement following his release, al-Megrahi stood by his insistence that he was wrongfully convicted.
"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.
He also 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 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."
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist 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.
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 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, and Jim Hannah in Dayton, Ohio, contributed to this report.