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Family: Lockerbie bomber near death

The former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing is close to death and slipping in and out of consciousness, his family said Monday.
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/ Source: staff and news service reports

The former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing is close to death and slipping in and out of consciousness, his family said Monday, a week after the regime that protected him was ousted from power.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was the only person convicted for the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. He was released from a Scottish prison on humanitarian grounds in 2009, only eight years into a life sentence, after doctors predicted he would die of prostate cancer within three months.

Many victims' families were infuriated by his release. That fury only grew when he returned to a hero's welcome in Libya, remained alive long past those doctors' predictions and even appeared at a recent pro-Gadhafi rally. The downfall of the Gadhafi regime spurred calls from some in the United States and Europe that he be returned to prison.

The Obama administration has asked the rebels to review his case, with an eye toward potentially expelling him if he does not die in the meantime, a U.S. official said Monday.

Washington has asked rebel officials to "take a hard look at what it thinks ought to happen with Mr. Megrahi, and it is committed to do that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

"This is a guy with blood on his hands, the lives of innocents. Libya itself under Gadhafi made a hero of this guy. Presumably, a new, free, democratic Libya would have a different attitude toward a convicted terrorist," Nuland said.

But First Minister Alex Salmond, head of the semiautonomous Scottish government, told reporters Monday that only his administration could demand al-Megrahi's extradition — and that it did not intend to do so. Al-Megrahi has abided by the conditions set upon his release, Salmond said, including keeping Scottish authorities updated on his medical status and not committing any new crimes.

"We have never had and do not have any intention of asking for the extradition of Mr. al-Megrahi," he said, adding that calls by others for al-Megrahi's return "have no bearing on this issue."

He suggested that those calling for al-Megrahi's return to jail instead allow the bomber "to die in peace."

Libya's rebel leaders, who are scrambling to replace Gadhafi's regime with a government of their own, initially said they would not deport al-Megrahi or any other Libyan, then softened their stance, saying that only the future elected government could deal with such issues.

But the question of his fate is likely to be the first of many thorny foreign policy issues that rebel leaders will have to navigate as they chart Libya's future course. While trying to extend their control over a vast desert nation of 6 million people with few working institutions, they'll have to address the legacy of Gadhafi's four decades of belligerent relations with much of the world.

The Lockerbie saga began when a bomb packed into a suitcase exploded inside Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew over Scotland, killing 270 people, including many American college students flying home for Christmas. The bombing, which scattered flaming wreckage onto the small town of Lockerbie and killed 11 people on the ground, became one of the most vivid scenes of terrorism of that era, and helped ensure that Libya remained an international pariah state.

After al-Megrahi's conviction brought some semblance of closure to the case, his release stirred up intense emotions once again for the victims.

Critics have long suspected the move was a British attempt to improve relations with oil-rich Libya.

After the collapse of Gadhafi's regime, two New York senators asked the rebels to hold al-Megrahi fully accountable for the bombing.

The rebels appeared to be caught off guard by the questions and modified their response several times.

Rebel Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi told journalists in Tripoli on Sunday that no Libyans would be deported.

"We will not hand over any Libyan citizen. It was Gadhafi who handed over Libyan citizens," he said.

He took a more nuanced stance Monday, saying the decision to release al-Megrahi was made by a "sovereign government" that had not requested his return. He also said such issues could only be dealt with after a new Libyan government is in place.

"We are in the process of liberating Libya and rebuilding it anew," he said. "Dealing with this issue will fall to a national elected government."

Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam acknowledged that the issue "is very important to some of our Western allies," adding that it would be dealt with according to "international rules and standards."

While the rebels have yet to articulate a foreign policy, it will doubtless be more conciliatory toward the West than Gadhafi's. Rebel leaders are keenly aware that many of their military advances in the six-month civil war were facilitated by NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's better-equipped and trained forces.

While al-Megrahi has not been seen publicly in months, his brother said Monday that he was terminally sick and seldom even conscious.

"He is between life and death, so what difference would prison make?" Abdel-Nasser al-Megrahi said, standing outside the family's house in an upscale Tripoli neighborhood.

He described his brother as being in a coma, occasionally waking and asking for his mother.

"It is natural for him to be with his family and his mother," said the brother. "Anyone, either Libyan or Scottish, would have mercy."

He declined to let reporters see his brother.

Al-Megrahi's whereabouts were , which reported Sunday that it found him at a palatial house in an upmarket part of Tripoli, guarded by at least six security cameras and attended to by concerned relatives.

Al-Megrahi was described by CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, who went inside the house, as "a shell of the man that he was, far sicker than he appeared before ... at death's door."

During the visit, the alleged ex-Libyan intelligence agent apparently was unconscious in bed. Al-Megrahi's relatives said he was being kept alive with oxygen and a fluid drip, had stopped eating and occasionally lapsed into a coma, CNN reported.

also reported that al-Megrahi's cancer drugs had been stolen during the uprising.

Scottish officials overseeing the parole of al-Megrahi said Monday they had been in contact with his family and confirmed the convicted bomber's "condition is consistent with someone suffering from terminal prostate cancer."

Little is known about al-Megrahi. At his trial, he was described as the "airport security" chief for Libyan intelligence, and witnesses reported him negotiating deals to buy equipment for Libya's secret service and military.

But he became a central figure — some would say pawn — in Libya's falling out with the West and then its re-emergence from the cold.

To Libyans, he was a folk hero, an innocent scapegoat used by the West to demonize their country. The Gadhafi regime said it handed him over to Scotland in 1999 only to restore Libya's relations with the world.

In the months ahead of his release, Tripoli put enormous pressure on Britain, warning that if the ailing al-Megrahi died in a Scottish prison, all British commercial activity in Libya would be cut off and a wave of demonstrations would erupt outside British embassies, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic memos. The Libyans even implied "that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk," the memos say.

He was greeted as a hero upon his return to Libya, and appeared on state TV seated next to Gadhafi at a government rally early in the civil war.

But in the eyes of many Americans and Europeans, he was a foot-soldier for Gadhafi's regime. Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister at the time of the conviction, said the verdict "confirms our long-standing suspicion that Libya instigated the Lockerbie bombing."

To the end, al-Megrahi insisted he was innocent. Gadhafi's regime denied any role in the bombing. Even some relatives of victims have had doubts over his guilt — with many theorizing that Iran had planted the bomb.

In Washington, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday the U.S. stands by the position it took two years ago when Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds.

"Secretary (HIllary) Clinton has made it clear, we believe he should still be behind bars, that the decision to release him was...not the right decision to make," Nuland said.