LONDON — The Scottish government has decided to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a State Department official confirmed to NBC News on Wednesday.
NBC, quoting the unnamed official, said a statement was expected to be released once an official announcement by Scotland was made.
Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said Wednesday that he had informed the families of the victims that he had come to a decision about what to do with al-Megrahi and would make a formal announcement Thursday afternoon in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital.
Sky News television and the BBC reported Wednesday that al-Megrahi will be released from prison on compassionate grounds. The BBC added that his release had been expected before the end of the week. Neither network cited the source of its information.
Al-Megrahi, 57, has terminal cancer.
He was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. The airliner — which was carrying mostly American passengers to New York — blew up as it flew over Scotland. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when the aircraft crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
But a 2007 review of his case raised the prospect that al-Megrahi had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and many in Britain believe that he is innocent.
Lawyers for the former Libyan intelligence agent say his physical condition is worsening. The question of whether to release him has divided the families of those who died.
The Rev. John Mosey, whose daughter Helga, 19, died in the attack, said Wednesday he would be glad to see al-Megrahi return home.
"It is right he should go home to die in dignity with his family. I believe it is our Christian duty to show mercy," he said.
But American families have largely been hostile to the idea. Seven U.S. senators and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have urged MacAskill not to release al-Megrahi.
"If he's released on compassionate grounds, who would provide comfort and compassion to the family members?" said Peter Sullivan, whose best friend Mike Doyle was killed in the bombing.
On Tuesday, Clinton told reporters that the U.S. believes al-Megrahi should serve out his sentence.
"The United States has made its views known over a number of months and we continue to make the same point that we think it is inappropriate and very much against the wishes of the family members of the victims who suffered such grievous losses with the actions that led to the bombing of the airline," Clinton said. "And we have made our views known to the Libyan government as well.
"I take this very personally because I knew a lot of the family members of those who were lost, because there was a large contingent from Syracuse University," Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York, added.
A generation of sanctions
Libyans, meanwhile, are ready to celebrate the return of al-Megrahi, whom they see as an innocent victim of the West's campaign to turn their country into an international pariah.
"Exoneration. That's what we've been waiting for, and what (his release) would be," said Mohammed Abdel-Hameed, a 76-year-old retiree catching some shade behind a column in the square. "We all paid for Lockerbie, but al-Megrahi paid the highest price."
"It was all fabrication on fabrication," said Ramadan Misbahi, 45, as friends seated around him at an outdoor cafe nodded in agreement. "He didn't do anything."
The Lockerbie bombing sealed Libya's reputation as a terror sponsor in the eyes of the West. United Nations sanctions were imposed in 1992, augmenting others already imposed by the United States. The measures, as a whole, barred U.S. firms from doing business in Libya and barred air travel in and out of Libya.
The sanctions shaped the lives of a generation of Libyans. People had to drive to neighboring Tunisia or take a ferry to Malta to travel abroad. Quality goods were hard to come by. With little foreign investment — even from Europeans — and heavy government control of the local economy, cities like Tripoli fell into disrepair, buildings became run down, and Libyans felt cut off from the world.
Libya's decision to hand over al-Megrahi — along with a second suspect who was eventually acquitted — for trial in the Netherlands in 1999 marked the start of the country's escape from international isolation. The transformation was pushed along in the early 2000s by Libya's renunciation of its weapons of mass destruction program and agreement to pay compensation of about $2.7 billion to the Lockerbie victims' families.
That paved the way for the lifting of the U.N. sanctions in 2003, and the U.S. sanctions in the years that followed. It also opened the floodgates for foreign — mainly European — investment in a country flush with oil and hungry for contact with the outside world.
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