US hits back at claims of Lockerbie 'double-talk'
The United States on Monday hit back at claims it was guilty of "double-talk" over the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, insisting it had always wanted him to die in jail.
The Obama administration intervened after it emerged that US officials argued last year that if Scotland was determined to free Abdelbaset Ali Mohment al-Megrahi, he should stay on Scottish soil and not be sent home to Libya.
Officials said they had however hoped that Megrahi would never be freed after being convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
The fact that Megrahi is still alive, nearly a year after being freed on compassionate grounds due to terminal cancer, has caused outrage in the United States and sparked transatlantic tensions.
"The preference enunciated by every level of this government was for him to continue to serve the sentence that he was serving until he died," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Gibbs said that American diplomats at the time argued that should the Scots ignore US pleas and release Megrahi, "whatever you do, do not let him travel to Libya. Do not let him have a hero's welcome coming home."
On Sunday, the US State Department released a letter sent by a senior US embassy official to the Scottish government last year on Megrahi, after it was leaked to London's Sunday Times.
The paper, in a story headlined: "Revealed: Document exposes US double-talk on Lockerbie" said the letter suggested to Scottish ministers that American opposition to the release of Megrahi was "half-hearted."
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley explained the unusual move to release the letter on Monday, saying "the story yesterday seemed to suggest that we were not against the idea of compassionate release."
In the letter, US charge d'affaires Richard LeBaron reiterated strong US opposition to the idea of freeing Megrahi, due to the "heinous" nature of his crimes and the likely "devastating impact" on victims of the attack.
But he wrote "if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose."
LeBaron also asked the Scottish authorities to permit "independent and comprehensive medical exams clearly establishing that Megrahi's life expectancy is less than three months."
The US Senate is re-examining the issue, which clouded British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Washington last week, amid claims by US lawmakers that oil giant BP had pressured for Megrahi's release.
Megrahi was eligible for transfer to a Libyan jail under a 2007 agreement between Britain and Libya, which BP had lobbied for in a bid to speed up a huge oil exploration deal it was making with the north African state.
In the event, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill rejected Libya's request for a prison transfer for Megrahi.
He decided instead to free Megrahi under long-standing Scottish policy of compassionate release -- a decision he insists had nothing to do with BP.
© 2010 AFP