Lockerbie victims' families plan next move
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Relatives of Americans killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, plan to converge on New York City in September to protest Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's speech at the United Nations.
Family members are furious that convicted Libyan bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, 57, was released from a Scottish prison Thursday and was greeted in Libya by cheering crowds.
Susan Cohen, whose daughter Theodora, then 20, died in the attack, called the release "a triumph for terrorism," and said Mr. Gadhafi is to blame.
"Look what we've come to be: A man blows up an American plane, and now here he [Gadhafi] is rolling into New York in triumph," she said, adding sarcastically: "That's wonderful. Makes the world safer, doesn't it?"
Ms. Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., said the release is a major concession to Mr. Gadhafi, who she said wields increasing power through lucrative oil contracts with Western nations. Ms. Cohen, like several victims' family members, said she was disappointed that President Barack Obama's administration is not taking a harder line.
"The fact is, every time this kind of appeasement happens, it really endangers the innocent public," Ms. Cohen said. "What would any terrorist think looking at this? How scared would you be?"
Scottish officials said Mr. Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, has advanced prostate cancer and was given only months to live. They said they were bound by Scottish rules of compassion to release him, although he had served only eight years of a life sentence.
Frank Dugan, president of the group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, said members didn't spend much time discussing Mr. Megrahi's release or the welcoming reception he received during a two-hour conference call the group held last night. "We didn't focus on that -- it just turns our stomach to see that," Mr. Dugan said in an interview after the call. "We were led to believe there wouldn't be any 'dancing in the end zone,' as I call it, but that's what happened."
Instead, members focused on logistics for the Gadhafi protest, tentatively planned for Sept. 23, along with plans for the upcoming 21st anniversary of the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing, which killed 270 people. The anniversary event will be held at Syracuse University, where 35 of the victims went to school.
Mr. Dugan did not lose any family members on the flight, but joined the victims group after serving on the commission appointed by former President George H.W. Bush that investigated the bombing.
Britain yesterday condemned the "upsetting" scenes of jubilation in Tripoli upon the return of Mr. Megrahi and considered canceling a royal visit to Libya as a sign of displeasure. Mr. Obama called the warm welcome in Libya "highly objectionable."
Thousands of young men greeted Mr. Megrahi's plane at a Tripoli airport after his flight home. Some threw flower petals as he stepped from the jet.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemned the scenes as "deeply distressing," and said the way the Gadhafi government behaved in the next few days would help determine whether Libya is accepted back into the international fold.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had written to the Libyan leader before Mr. Megrahi's release, urging Libya to "act with sensitivity" when he returned.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "I think the images that we saw in Libya yesterday were outrageous and disgusting. We continue to express our condolences to the families that lost a loved one as a result of this terrorist murder."
Mr. Gibbs said the White House had been in contact with Libyan authorities. "We've registered our outrage. We have discussed with the Libyans about what we think is appropriate. We'll continue to watch the actions of this individual and the Libyan government."
Yet by Libyan standards, Mr. Megrahi's welcome was relatively muted. Hundreds of people waiting in the crowd for his plane were rushed away by authorities at the last minute, and the arrival was not aired live on state TV.
It was an unusually low-key approach for a country that once snapped up any opportunity to snub the West and could easily bring out hundreds of thousands to cheer if it so chose. It suggested that Libya is wary of hurting its ties with the United States and Europe and had listened to Mr. Obama's warning not to give Mr. Megrahi a hero's welcome.
"It seemed as some form of last-minute compromise between those who felt it their patriotic duty to welcome him and those in the Libyan hierarchy who wanted to heed the demands of the U.S. that it should be low-key," said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya. "There was no Libyan dignitary to receive him, and no formal reception. This is compulsory in Arab hospitality, so the absence of a welcoming party is quite significant," he said.
In an interview yesterday with the Times of London newspaper, Mr. Megrahi said he had not told his 86-year-old mother that he is terminally ill. The newspaper said he had requested that reporters not tell her of his condition. "This was my hope and wish -- to be back with my family before I pass away. ... I always believed I would come back if justice prevailed," he was quoted as telling the newspaper at his home in Tripoli's Dimachk district.
First Published August 22, 2009 12:00 am