The release of the Lockerbie bomber was linked to trade deals with Britain, Libya said, as controversy swirled afresh yesterday around the decision by Scotland to free Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi.
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi late on Friday met Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal prostate cancer, and praised Scottish authorities for their “courage” in freeing him on compassionate grounds.
Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam said Megrahi’s release on Thursday was linked to trade deals with Britain, allegations that were swiftly denied by London.
“In all commercial contracts, for oil and gas with Britain, [Megrahi] was always on the negotiating table,” said Islam, who traveled to Scotland to accompany Megrahi back to Libya.
“All British interests were linked to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi,” he added in interview to Libyan TV channel Al Mutawassit taped on the return flight.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Downing Street office firmly denied that Megrahi’s release was linked to Britain’s interest in Libya’s oil and gas reserves.
“There is no deal,” a spokesman said. “The position remains the same, as we have been making clear. This has always been a matter for the Scottish executive and ministers.”
A spokesman for the Foreign Office also rejected the allegations.
“No deal has been made between the UK government and Libya in relation to Megrahi and any commercial interests in the country,” a spokesman said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Friday angrily refuted suggestions that the British government wanted Megrahi freed so that commercial relations with oil-rich Libya could be improved.
“I really reject that entirely,” Miliband said. “That is a slur both on myself and the government.”
Speculation that there had been some form of agreement was fueled by the disclosure that British Business Secretary Lord Peter Mandelson met Islam during his recent holiday on the Greek island of Corfu.
Megrahi, the only person convicted for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people in the air and on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie, was sentenced to life in prison in 2001.
Hundreds of flag-waving well-wishers cheered Megrahi upon his arrival in Tripoli, despite warnings by the US that a public celebration might damage relations that have been improving since Libya renounced terrorism and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
US President Barack Obama on Friday called the red-carpet reception Megrahi received “highly objectionable,” while his spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced an “outrageous and disgusting” display.
The Libyan leader said Megrahi’s release “will surely have positive repercussions on all aspects of cooperation between our two countries.”
Megrahi, who has always maintained his innocence, told the Times newspaper in an interview conducted at his family home in Tripoli that he would present new evidence through his Scottish lawyers that would exonerate him.
“My message to the British and Scottish communities is that I will put out the evidence and ask them to be the jury,” he said, refusing to elaborate.
The father of one of the British Lockerbie bombing victims, meanwhile, said he was still seeking the truth behind the terror attack.
Jim Swire, 73, whose 23-year-old daughter Flora was among those killed, applauded the release of Megrahi, saying he believed him to be innocent.
“I am a Christian, so I would hope that, even if I was convinced that Megrahi was guilty, my Christian compassion and forgiveness would extend to wanting to see him die with his family around him in Libya,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
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