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Libya keeps Lockerbie bomber under wraps

A Libyan soldier stands guard Thursday at Tripoli's Green Square, a sweeping plaza where thousands of chairs had been set up, in anticipation of an appearance by  Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Howe
A Libyan soldier stands guard Thursday at Tripoli's Green Square, a sweeping plaza where thousands of chairs had been set up, in anticipation of an appearance by Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. However neither appeared at the previously planned rally.
Abdel Magid al Fergany, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya kept the Lockerbie bomber out of sight Friday, apparently wary of hurting its improving ties with the West, as Britain's foreign secretary denounced his warm homecoming and warned that the world's view of Tripoli will be damaged if it trumpets his release.

A crowd waving Libyan and Scottish flags threw flower petals as Abdel Baset al-Megrahi landed Thursday night at Tripoli airport following his release from prison by Scotland. The son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was on the flight escorting him home, raised al-Megrahi's hand in victory at the aircraft's door.

But even as al-Megrahi descended from the airplane, Libya seemed to scramble to scale down plans for an elaborate welcome. Hundreds in the crowd were rushed away by authorities, the arrival was not aired live on state TV and al-Megrahi was quickly whisked away to an unknown location.

On Friday, officials had no comment on his whereabouts. Libyan television did not report on al-Megrahi, concentrating on sports and stories about the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which began in Libya on Friday.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Friday denounced the welcome al-Megrahi received, telling the BBC that how Gadhafi's government behaves in the next few days will "be very significant in the way the world views Libya's re-entry into the civilized community of nations."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to Gadhafi before al-Megrahi's release urging Libya to "act with sensitivity."

On Thursday, President Barack Obama said he was in touch with Libyan authorities and told them al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, should not be "welcomed in some way but instead should be under house arrest."

The silence Friday and the sudden, last-minute toning down of celebrations the night before suggested that Libya wants to ensure its ties with the United States and Europe, which have improved dramatically after years as a pariah state — in part over the 1988 Lockerbie attack, in which 270 people, mostly Americans.

Al-Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, was freed by Scotland on compassionate grounds after serving eight years of a life sentence over the attack. The decision infuriated the families of many of the U.S. victims.

Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, said that it appeared Libyan officials made a "last minute attempt to stage a low-key reception."

Speaking to Britain's Sky News, he cautioned against Western governments "acting too sharply" over the scenes of al-Megrahi's return.

"In Libyan terms, it was not a hero's welcome. They made pretty credible efforts of playing down the event," he said, adding, "But even the little they did allow was damaging and inappropriate."

In the past, Libya would rarely miss an opportunity to loudly proclaim victory over the West, and the government is able to put together crowds of tens of thousands to chant and cheer if it wants.

Ahead of al-Megrahi's arrival Thursday night, it appeared the leadership was planning such a reception. Several thousand young men were bused in to the airport. On the tarmac where al-Megrahi's plane was to pull up, they danced to nationalist songs while a DJ encouraged them along. Many hoisted small solid-green Libyan flags while others held aloft Scottish flags.

But within minutes of the plane's landing, authorities rushed most of the crowd away, leaving around 300, and the nationalist songs were halted. International media who had been brought to the airport were hastily taken away just before the arrival.

A Libyan TV channel connected to Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, had been granted exclusive rights to air al-Megrahi's arrival live. But it did not do so. Instead, it carried short clips of him coming down the airliner's stairs hours later, around 1 a.m. Authorities said there were technical difficulties with the live broadcast.

Also, neither al-Megrahi nor Seif al-Islam Gadhafi — who escorted him on the flight — appeared later at a previously planned rally at Tripoli's Green Square, a sweeping plaza where thousands of chairs had been set up. The rally was organized as part of celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Libya's revolution — not in connection with al-Megrahi — and his return did not appear to be mentioned during speeches at the rally.

Earlier in the day Thursday, Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Baghdadi passed up an opportunity during a joint press conference with the Swiss president to comment on the Lockerbie bomber's return.

It could be a sign that the former pariah nation has an increased concern for its international image. Libya spent years under U.N. and U.S. sanctions because of Lockerbie and was isolated as a sponsor of terrorism for alleged involvement in other attacks.

It began to rehabilitate itself by agreeing in 1999 to hand al-Megrahi over for trial in the bombing. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi also renounced his weapons of mass destruction program and accepted responsibility for the attack, paving the way for the sanctions to be removed.

European nations and the United States restored ties with Tripoli, and in recent years the oil-rich North African nation has started to enjoy the fruits of its new respectability, shaky as it may seem to some critics.

Billions of euros and dollars in foreign investment is starting to arrive in the country. Western energy companies — including Britain's BP PLC — have moved into Libya in an effort to tap the country's vast crude oil and gas wealth.

AP correspondents Jill Lawless and Karolina Tagaris in London contributed to this report.