Image: Abdel Baset al-Megrahi arrives in Libya
Amr Nabil  /  AP
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, top left, is accompanied by Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, upon his arrival at the airport in Tripoli on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/21/2009 12:18:40 PM ET 2009-08-21T16:18:40

Libya appeared on Friday to be trying to downplay the return of the Lockerbie bomber, keeping him out of the public eye and making little official mention of him, amid outrage by families of the U.S. victims and a warning by President Barack Obama not to give him a hero's welcome.

A crowd threw flower petals as Abdel Baset al-Megrahi landed at Tripoli airport Thursday night following his release from prison by Scotland — and the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi escorted him home.

But even as al-Megrahi descended from the airplane, Libya seemed to quickly scale down its planned more elaborate welcome. Hundreds in the crowd were rushed away by authorities and the arrival was not aired live on state TV.

By midday Friday, it was not known where al-Megrahi had been taken, and officials had no comment on his whereabouts.

It was an unusually low-key approach for a country that in the past has snapped up any opportunity to snub the West and could easily bring out hundreds of thousands to cheer if it chose to. It suggested that Libya is wary of hurting its ties with the United States and Europe, which have improved dramatically after years as a pariah state — in part over the 1988 Lockerbie attack, in which 270 people, mostly Americans, were killed in a bombing that downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland.

Al-Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, was freed by Scotland on compassionate grounds after serving eight years of a life sentence over the attack. The decision infuriated the families of many of the U.S. victims. On Thursday, Obama said he was in touch with Libyan authorities and told them al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, should not be "welcomed in some way but instead should be under house arrest."

A former Western diplomat once based in Tripoli, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, pointed out that the Libyan government has been conspicuously silent about his return.

The diplomat pointed out that even Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Baghdadi passed up an opportunity during a joint press conference Thursday with the Swiss president to comment on the Lockerbie bomber's return.

Last-minute change of plans
There were signs of a last-minute change of plans during el-Megrahi's arrival to tone down the reception.

Video: Compassion or injustice?

Ahead of his plane's landing Thursday night, thousands of young men were bused in to the airport. They danced to nationalist songs while a DJ encouraged them along. Many hoisted small solid-green Libyan flags while others held aloft Scottish flags.

But within minutes of the landing, authorities rushed most of them away, paring the crowd down to around 300 and the nationalist songs were halted. International media who had been brought to the airport were hastily taken away just before the arrival.

A Libyan TV channel connected to Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, had been granted exclusive rights to air al-Megrahi's arrival live. But it did not do so. Instead, it carried short clips of him coming down the airliner's stairs hours later, around 1 a.m. Authorities said there were technical difficulties with the live broadcast.

Also, neither al-Megrahi nor Seif al-Islam Gadhafi — who escorted him on the flight — appeared later at a previously planned rally at Tripoli's Green Square, a sweeping plaza where thousands of chairs had been set up. The rally was organized as part of celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Libya's revolution — not in connection with al-Megrahi — and his return did not appear to be mentioned during speeches at the rally.

Still, Britain's foreign secretary on Friday denounced the welcome al-Megrahi received. David Miliband told the BBC that how Gadhafi's government behaves in the next few days will "be very significant in the way the world views Libya's re-entry into the civilized community of nations."

In Libya, al-Megrahi is seen as an innocent scapegoat the West used to turn this African nation into a pariah, and his return is a cause for celebration.

"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, N.J., 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."

‘Something that I did not do’
In a statement following al-Megrahi's release, he 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 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."

Crucial testimony
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.

A letter published Thursday showed that Libya had invoked human rights concerns in appealing to Scotland for al-Megrahi's release.

Abdulati Alobidi, Libya's Secretary of European Affairs, said under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — a U.N. treaty — all those deprived of liberty must be "treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person."

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.

Last days
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."

More on: Lockerbie

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Outrage

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