U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Libyan opposition leaders Thursday that they must deal with the case of the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and that the U.S. will be watching closely how they handle it. The bomber "should be behind bars," Clinton said.
Meeting with senior members of Libya's National Transitional Council, Clinton said Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's release from prison and the current status of the former Libyan intelligence officer are of deep concern to the Obama administration. The conversations took place amid increased clamoring from U.S. lawmakers and leading Republican presidential candidates for Megrahi's return to prison or even extradition.
The ailing al-Megrahi was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds, eight years into a life sentence in Scotland, after doctors predicted he would die of prostate cancer within three months.
"The United States categorically disagrees with the decision that was made two years ago by the Scottish executive to release al-Megrahi and return him to Libya," Clinton told reporters Thursday. "We have never wavered from our disagreement and condemnation of that decision. He should be behind bars."
In her meetings, Clinton made clear to Libyan opposition leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril that the U.S. believes al-Megrahi should never have been freed and that his return to a hero's welcome in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya remains problematic, American officials said.
Clinton said the U.S. also was seeking the Libyan interim government's assistance for more information about possible accomplices in the planning or execution of the bombing.
The Gadhafi opposition has pledged to look at the handling of the al-Megrahi case once it has established itself as a fully functioning government.
Al-Megrahi, an ardent Gadhafi supporter, is now reported to be near death at his home in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. But his continued presence in Libya has led some members of Congress to demand his extradition or jailing, particularly since rebels drove Gadhafi from power last month and are now on the verge of taking full control of the country.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked Clinton to make the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets from the Gadhafi government contingent on al-Megrahi's return to jail.
The State Department said Wednesday that Clinton would press the opposition on the case, but would not link it to the assets, given the immediate priorities such as securing and stabilizing Libya.
"I share the anger," Clinton said. "As you know I represented New York for eight years. A lot of the people who were killed came from either Syracuse University or nearby in upstate New York."
Speaking about the private meeting on condition of anonymity, the U.S. officials said Clinton told Jalil and Jibril that they would have to "grapple" with the al-Megrahi matter and look for a "just and appropriate response" to American concerns.
The officials said the Libyans had been expecting Clinton to raise the issue and understood how much importance the U.S. attaches to it. The officials would not say whether Clinton demanded specific actions from the Libyans.
The December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
Clinton told reporters that the U.S. government continues to extend its deepest sympathies to families that "have to live every day with the knowledge that they lost their loved ones."
"They wanted justice to prevail, and we think justice was aborted," she said. "So we will continue to pursue justice on behalf of the victims of this terrorist attack."
British officials said Prime Minister David Cameron didn't discuss the issue in talks with Libyan envoys in Paris. Al-Megrahi's release was made on the decision of Scotland's semiautonomous government, which said Monday it had no plans to attempt to recall him to the Scottish jail where he was being held.
Associated Press writer David Stringer contributed to this report.