Over ferocious American objections, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie jet bombing, flew home to a jubilant welcome in Libya on Thursday night after the Scottish government ordered his release on compassionate grounds.
Al-Megrahi, 57, a former Libyan intelligence agent, had served eight years of a 27-year minimum sentence on charges of murdering 270 people in Britain's worst terrorist episode.
His release angered many Americans whose relatives died in the bombing, leaving them to confront anew the agony and anguish of loss and to question the notion of justice that allowed a man convicted of murderous acts, which he always denied, to walk free.
"Compassionate release on the face of it is insane for a convicted mass murderer," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died when a bomb smuggled onto Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. "For the families we have this thing that is so horrible to live with anyway, and now we have to live with this."
Ignoring American demands that Al-Megrahi not be celebrated as a hero returning to his homeland, hundreds of young Libyans were bused to the military airport in Tripoli to welcome him home, cheering and waving Libyan and Scottish flags as he sped off in a convoy of white vehicles.
On the flight from Scotland, Al- Megrahi was accompanied by Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, stamping an official imprimatur on his release and reinforcing the official Libyan view that Al-Megrahi was a scapegoat used by the West to reinforce its depiction of Libya as a pariah state.
The welcome was another slight for Washington, which had sought to persuade Libya not to permit a hero's welcome for Al-Megrahi and had opposed his release.
Still protesting his innocence and offering "sincere sympathy" to the families of those who died in the bombing, Al-Megrahi was granted his freedom under the terms of Scottish laws permitting the early release of prisoners with less than three months to live. The Scottish authorities and his lawyers say he has terminal prostate cancer.