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Reports: Lockerbie Bomber to Be Released

The only man ever convicted in the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, was due to learn Thursday whether he will be freed on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya or die in a British prison.

British television networks Sky News and the BBC reported Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, will be released. Neither network cited the source of its information.

The Scottish government said it would announce its decision at 1 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT).

The BBC reported, without citing sources, that a plane had left Libya bound for Scotland to pick up the freed bomber.

Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said Wednesday he had informed the families of the bombing victims that he had made a decision.

Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. The airliner — which was carrying mostly American passengers to New York — blew up as it flew over Scotland. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when the aircraft 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.

The prospect of al-Megrahi's release has angered relatives of many bombing victims, and is strongly opposed by the U.S. government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned MacAskill urging him not to release al-Megrahi, and seven U.S. senators wrote a letter with a similar message.

The Times of London reported Thursday that the private jet of Libya's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was scheduled to collect al-Megrahi at Glasgow Airport if he was released following MacAskill's announcement.

The airport confirmed that a plane from Tripoli had booked a slot to land on Wednesday, but did not land. An official at Glasgow who spoke on customary condition of anonymity said that no similar slots had been booked on Thursday or Friday. Nearby Prestwick airport said it was not aware of any flights arriving Thursday from Libya.

In Washington, Obama administration officials said Scottish authorities had not formally notified them that al-Megrahi would be released. But they said the administration was working on the assumption that he would be. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy involved and the sensitive nature of the case.

Al-Megrahi's trial and conviction led to a major shift in Libya's relationship with the West.

Qaddafi 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.

Qaddafi 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 whether to release the 57-year-old 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.

But American families have largely been hostile to the idea.

"I'm totally against it. He murdered 270 people," said Paul Halsch of Perinton, New York, who lost his 31-year-old wife in the attack. "This might sound crude or blunt, but I want him returned from Scotland the same way my wife Lorraine was ... and that would be in a box."

Peter Sullivan of Akron, Ohio, whose friend and college roommate Mike Doyle died at Lockerbie, said he believed Britain was putting commercial interests before the interests of the victims' relatives.

"The interest of big oil should not be the basis of a miscarriage of justice to let a murderer of 270 people be released," Sullivan said. "If he's released on compassionate grounds, who would provide comfort and compassion to the family members?"

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