TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya kept a low profile on Friday after Britain warned against any repeat of the celebrations a year ago that greeted the release of a Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Libya feted the return home of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, touting it as a victory for Libyan negotiating skills although the official reason for his release was compassionate grounds — prostate cancer, believed at the time to be terminal.
But Megrahi remains alive today, prompting U.S. questions about the medical advice that led to his release, and calls from Britain on Libya to eschew any festivities on the first anniversary of the release that would be regarded as offensive to the families of Lockerbie victims, who were mainly American.
Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 for his part in blowing up New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, killing 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He denied any role in the attack.
“The (Libyan) authorities instructed us to remain silent about the first anniversary of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s return home,” his brother, Abelhakim Ali, told Reuters on Friday.
“They stressed that it is not business or (showing) responsibility to comment on his release or the condition of his health,” he added.
Milad Maatoug, head of Libya’s National Youth Council which celebrated Megrahi’s return, said its annual festival on Friday would avoid the Lockerbie subject altogether this time.
“We are holding our festival this year like we have been doing each year since 2006. But our event this time will have nothing to do with al-Megrahi at all,” he said.
The Council groups staunch backers of Saif al Islam, the influential son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Islam flew Megrahi on his private jet back home to a hero’s welcome a year ago, embarrassing Britain’s then-Labour government.
“This year, Libya’s leadership is keeping quiet while they secretly enjoy their success. They do not need to trumpet about that anew,” said a senior Libyan official source.
A British Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Any celebration of Megrahi’s release would be tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive to the victims’ families.”
U.S. anger over the official medical justification for Megrahi’s release resurfaced after U.S. politicians questioned whether oil giant BP Plc had lobbied Scotland, whose devolved government has responsibility for judicial matters, for Megrahi’s release to further its business interests in Libya.
BP and Scottish minister denied the accusations.
BP has confirmed that it lobbied the British government for a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but said it did not lobby specifically for Megrahi’s release.
U.S. senators sought to hold a hearing on whether BP had influenced the release as it sought contracts with resource-rich Libya. But a number of British witnesses declined to testify.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, elected in May, rejected calls for an inquiry into whether BP influenced the release when he met U.S. President Barack Obama last month.
Refusing to give up, U.S. senators wrote on Thursday to Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond asking for more information on the case, for all relevant documents to be made available and for an independent investigation into the release.
“The noisy fight between British and American governments is enough to remind Libyans and the rest of the world about our leadership’s skills in scoring a big victory,” the Libyan official source added.