By Mohammed Abbas
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Neighbours of the Libyan man convicted in the 1988 bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie described a wealthy recluse, constantly surrounded by security guards.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who had been diagnosed with cancer, served only eight years in a Scottish jail for orchestrating the attack on Pan Am 103, before being released on compassionate grounds in 2009 and flown back to Libya after doctors gave him only months to live.
He was received with a hero's welcome on his return to Tripoli, and the televised images of cheering crowds angered many relatives of the 270 people killed in the attack, 189 of whom were Americans.
The Obama administration harshly criticized Scotland's decision to release Megrahi and many U.S. politicians and victims' families have pressed for his extradition to the United States.
One of Megrahi's neighbours said he had been whisked away by security guards last week when Tripoli fell to rebels battling forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, who like Megrahi, has gone into hiding. Libya's new government is likely to come under pressure to find Megrahi and hand him over.
"The day Tripoli fell, four security men, his private security, took him, his wife and his sons and left. They left in a Mercedes," said Ahmed Mlaaty, 20, a student and one of Megrahi's neighbours, standing outside his handsome villa.
As a condition of his release, Megrahi had been obliged to check in regularly with Scottish authorities, who said last week they had lost contact with him in the "dust of battle."
Neighbours said Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence operative, owns several properties in the Demeshk area of Tripoli's Hadba district, one of the smartest in the city.
Megrahi's properties appeared empty, with a padlock on the gate of one residence where he was said to receive guests.
Sprays of bougainvillea, tall palm trees and brightly colored flowers could be seen behind the high walls of the neighborhood's large villas.
"He kept himself to himself .... He's a millionaire. He gets his money from big daddy (Gaddafi). People keep their distance. They don't want to get into state affairs as it will only bring trouble," Mlaaty said.
Another neighbor who had sat with Megrahi at local functions but had never spoken to him said he appeared a reserved, well-turned-out man.
Most neighbours said Megrahi appeared unwell, but there is controversy over his severity of his condition -- diagnosed by Scottish doctors as terminal prostate cancer -- and whether it warranted his release.
"I saw him many times, he was in a wheelchair, he looked very ill, very thin. He always had security, more than one car. He never went anywhere without them," said senior policeman Ali Ahmed al-Khudair, 40, who said he resented the security patrols that accompanied Megrahi's arrival in the neighborhood.
"He wasn't a millionaire before, but he is now. He came here after he was released from prison. Then he bought these houses. This is one of Libya's top neighborhoods," he added.
Another neighbor said Megrahi caused no one any harm, and said his complicity in the bombing had not been proved.
"Everyone associates him with Lockerbie, but I'm not sure he was involved," said Noora Abdul Hadi, 27, a doctor.
Attiya al-Usta, 77, said he had seen Megrahi just before the February uprising against Gaddafi's 42-year-rule.
"When he came back from Europe he looked ill. But recently he looked fit and neat. I saw him just before the revolution. He didn't look ill at all. He was sitting in a chair on his balcony. He looked 100 percent."
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Rosalind Russell)