LONDON — Britain and the United States reacted angrily Friday to homecoming celebrations for a former Libyan secret service agent who was convicted in the Lockerbie bombing and released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds a day earlier.
President Barack Obama said the jubilant welcome Abdel Baset al-Megrahi received was "highly objectionable."
Arriving at an airport near Tripoli, Libya, the former Libyan intelligence agent was met by hundreds of people, some waving Libyan and Scottish flags, some throwing flower petals. The scene was in stark contrast to his departure from Scotland, where the convoy taking Megrahi to the Glasgow airport was jeered at by a cluster of local residents.
Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, told the BBC that the celebratory images were "deeply upsetting." He warned: "How the Libyan government handles itself 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."
Megrahi, 57, who is dying from prostate cancer, served eight years of a life sentence for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The airliner exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people, 189 of them American.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Tripoli scenes were "outrageous and disgusting." He added: "We continue to express our condolences to the families that lost a loved one as a result of this terrorist murder."
But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said the rapturous homecoming was "perfectly normal." He said that Gadhafi, who has long campaigned for Megrahi's release, would want to present a success and that most Libyans think he is innocent. "It was foolish to ask for a quiet reception when it wasn't going to happen," Miles said.
For years, the West has castigated Libya and its eccentric leader with trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But the country that Gadhafi has ruled for 40 years has started to come in from the cold, sharing intelligence information on radical Islamic groups and abandoning its secret nuclear weapons program.
Next month, Gadhafi is expected to visit the United States, where he is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly.