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August 14, 2009

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Lockerbie bomber in line for mercy release

FAMILIES of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing stood sharply divided yesterday over reports that the former Libyan agent jailed for life for the attack is to be freed on compassionate grounds.

Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, 57, who was convicted of murder in 2001, is dying of prostate cancer and could be released from a Scottish jail as early as next week, unconfirmed media reports said.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said no decision had been taken, while a spokesman for Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said the reports were "complete speculation."

A Libyan official in Tripoli said a deal was "in the last steps," but stressed both sides had agreed to keep quiet until Megrahi was back in Libya.

Megrahi was found guilty under Scottish law at a trial in the Netherlands of blowing up a Pan Am Boeing 747 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie as it flew from London to New York.

He was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

The bomb killed all 259 people on board, including 189 Americans, and 11 people on the ground.

Relatives of British victims said they had never been convinced of Megrahi's guilt and broadly welcomed the reports.

They said the evidence against Megrahi, which largely depended on the eyewitness testimony of a shopkeeper in Malta, was seriously flawed and fell short of the standard required to prove the Libyan's guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

"I don't believe the verdict is right," Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, told BBC radio. "It would be an abominable cruelty to force this man to die in prison."

Noman Benotman, a European-based Libyan political analyst, said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Scottish government wanted to free Megrahi, but had yet to convince relatives of the US victims.

"They want to finish with this problem," he said. "But the remaining obstacle is the families of the American victims. They are putting a lot of pressure on for him to stay in jail. They are lobbying for that."


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