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August 22, 2009

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Libya muffles bomber's return

LIBYA appeared yesterday to be trying to downplay the return of the Lockerbie bomber, keeping him out of the public eye and making little official mention of him, amid outrage by families of the US victims and a warning by US President Barack Obama not to give him a hero's welcome.

A crowd threw flower petals as Abdel Baset al-Megrahi landed at Tripoli airport on Thursday night following his release from prison by Scotland -- and the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi escorted him home.

But even as al-Megrahi descended from the airplane, Libya seemed to quickly scale down a more elaborate welcome that was planned. Hundreds in the crowd were rushed away by authorities, and the arrival was not aired live on state TV.

By midday yesterday, it was not known where al-Megrahi had been taken.

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 US victims.

Last-minute change

There were signs of a last-minute change of plans during el-Megrahi's arrival to tone down the reception.

Ahead of his plane's landing on Thursday night, thousands of young men were bused in to the airport. 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 landing, authorities rushed most of them away, paring the crowd down to 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 1am. Authorities said there were technical difficulties with the live broadcast.

Still, Britain's foreign secretary yesterday denounced the welcome al-Megrahi received. David Miliband told 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."

Al-Megrahi is the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died.


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