By BEN McCONVILLE
Associated Press Writer
EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP)—Scotland freed the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds Thursday, allowing the terminally ill man to die in his homeland of Libya and rejecting American pleas for justice in the attack that killed 270 people.
The White House said it "deeply regrets" the Scottish decision, and U.S. family members immediately expressed outrage.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who had served only eight years of his life sentence, was recently given only months to live after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said although al-Megrahi had not shown compassion to his victims—many of whom were American college students flying home to New York for Christmas—MacAskill was motivated by Scottish values to show mercy.
"Some hurts can never heal, some scars can never fade," MacAskill said. "Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive ... However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."
Al-Megrahi, 57, was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. He was sentenced to life in prison. The airliner exploded over Scotland, and all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when it crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
The former Libyan intelligence officer was sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison for Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. But a 2007 review of his case found grounds for an appeal of his conviction, and many in Britain believe he is innocent.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday the United States disagreed with the decision to free al-Megrahi.
"We continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland," Gibbs said. "On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones."
MacAskill said he stood by al-Megrahi's conviction and the sentence for "the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed on U.K. soil."
He said he ruled out sending the bomber back to Libya under a prisoner-transfer agreement, saying the U.S. victims had been given assurances that al-Megrahi would serve out his sentence in Scotland.
But he said that as a prisoner given less than three months to live by doctors, al-Megrahi was eligible for compassionate release.
"I am conscious that there are deeply held feelings and many will disagree whatever my decision," he said. "However, a decision has to be made."
The families of some American victims lashed out.
"I think it's appalling, disgusting and so sickening I can hardly find words to describe it," said Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the attack. "This isn't about compassionate release. This is part of give-Gadhafi-what-he-wants-so-we-can-have-the-oil."
"I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion. It's an utter insult and utterly disgusting," said Kara Weipz, of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, whose 20-year-old brother Richard Monetti was on board Pan Am Flight 103. "It's horrible. I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."
The Times of London reported Thursday that the private jet of Libya's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was to collect al-Megrahi at Glasgow Airport after he was released.
Al-Megrahi's trial and conviction led to a major shift in Libya's relationship with the West.
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He renounced terrorism, dismantled Libya's secret nuclear program, accepted his government's responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families.
Western energy companies—including Britain's BP PLC—have moved into Libya in an effort to tap the country's vast oil and gas wealth.
Gadhafi has lobbied for the return of al-Megrahi, an issue which took on an added sense of urgency when he was diagnosed with cancer last year. His lawyers say his condition is deteriorating and doctors have given him less than three months to live.
The question of freeing al-Megrahi has divided Lockerbie families, with many in Britain in favor of setting him free and many in the U.S. adamantly opposed.
British Rev. John Mosey, whose daughter Helga, 19, died in the attack, said Wednesday he would be glad to see al-Megrahi return home.
"It is right he should go home to die in dignity with his family. I believe it is our Christian duty to show mercy," he said.
Associated Press Writers Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel, N.J., Shawn Marsh in Trenton, N.J., Meera Selva in London, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jessica M. Pasko in Albany, N.Y., and Jim Hannah in Dayton, Ohio, contributed to this report.