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New anguish in Lockerbie over 1988 bombing

Twenty years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded above Lockerbie,Scotland, many residents of the small town suspect that more than compassion led to the release of the man convicted of the attack.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Nestled amid rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep, this small town whose name instantly recalls Britain's worst terrorist attack is trying to move on.

Not that anyone here thought it would be easy. Twenty years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded 31,000 feet above Lockerbie, residents are still finding debris. A few months ago, a yellow Pan Am life jacket was discovered in the branches of a 40-foot pine tree.

The town's name was hauled back into the headlines last month when Scotland's justice secretary released Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence agent who is the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing, which killed 270 people. He was freed from a Scottish prison Aug. 20.

"People here don't like to talk about it," said Ian Nicholson, a 40-year-old manager, who, like everyone over a certain age, can recall with amazing lucidity the horrifying details of that night. "This has brought it all back. People are judging us, judging Scotland, for the decision of one man."

The decision to release Megrahi has been met by outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, and widespread speculation that there was more to it than the compassion of the justice secretary continues to swirl.

Although no definitive evidence has been produced, allegations that Megrahi's release was prompted by trade considerations and access to Libyan oil fields are not sitting well with people in this town, once best known for its cheddar cheese.

"I abhor that he is free," said Peter Shields, 67, a retired sales manager who lives a few blocks from where a wing smashed into the ground, leaving a crater 155 feet long. "I think any decent Scot, any decent person would be incensed by this nonsense. There is some jiggery-pokery here, and it stinks to high heaven."

In an interview published Saturday, British Justice Secretary Jack Straw said trade considerations, particularly a deal for oil company BP, played a major role in the decision to include Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya.

Straw originally sought to exclude Megrahi from any prisoner transfer deal with Libya, but in 2007 he changed his position. He wrote in a letter to his Scottish counterpart that "wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage" and that a blanket agreement was in "the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom."

The following month, Libya ratified an oil exploration deal with BP worth up to $900 million.

In the interview, Straw told the Daily Telegraph that Libya was a "rogue state."

"We wanted to bring it back into the fold. And yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP deal."

Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was released on compassionate grounds, and Straw has called the controversy over the prisoner transfer agreement "academic." But the disclosure that London allowed Megrahi to be covered by the agreement nonetheless surprised U.S. officials, who say they had an understanding with the British government that he would serve out the entire sentence in Scotland.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has denied any allegation of dealmaking. On Wednesday, he said there was "no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me" to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

The governments in London and Edinburgh have not budged from what Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said on the day of Megrahi's release: The 57-year-old Libyan is dying of cancer and, in line with Scottish law and values, he -- and he alone -- was releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds so he could return home to Tripoli to die. A Libyan official told the Reuters news service last week that Megrahi had been hospitalized and was in poor condition. He has since left an intensive care unit but remains under "close observation" by a team of doctors, Reuters reported Friday.

Most Lockerbie residents know the details of that night by heart: On Dec. 21, 1988, the Pan Am flight left London's Heathrow Airport, almost 30 minutes behind schedule. At 7:03 p.m., a device hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player packed inside a suitcase exploded.

A recent BBC/ICM Research poll showed that 32 percent of Scots surveyed believe that the Lockerbie plotter should have been freed, and 20 percent of people thought the decision was made purely on humanitarian grounds.

"What about compassion for them? What about their rights?" asked catering assistant Christina Porteous, 59, pointing to a memorial that lists the names of the 259 people on the plane -- most of them American -- and the 11 people on the ground who were killed.

Like signposts pointing to unspeakable human tragedy, memorials are scattered around this town. Next to the field where the nose of the plane crashed sits a stone church with a memorial room. The town hall, which acted as a temporary morgue after the crash, bears a stained-glass window with the flags of the 21 nations that lost citizens. A giant rock marks the area where the 11 Lockerbie residents died. A plinth built of sandstone from destroyed houses recalls the part of town where the bodies of many students from Syracuse University were found.

Marjorie McQueen, a retired local council member, said helping visitors cope with loss is now the town's "raison d'être." In the past six years, more than 25,000 people have visited the memorial bearing the victims' names, in the Dryfesdale Cemetery on the outskirts of town, where three Americans were laid to rest at their families' requests. Brides from the area often place their wedding bouquets at the foot of the memorial, she said.

Recent visitors included the parents of Amy Beth Gallagher, a 22-year-old Canadian student who died in the attack. "Happy 43rd birthday," they wrote in a card tucked in a bundle of white roses. "How we wish we could all be with you to celebrate. Know that we love and miss you so very much. Hugs and Kisses. Mom and Dad."

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