LONDON — The release of the only man convicted of blowing up a Pan Am flight in 1988 has brought high drama and controversy: the jeering mob outside a Scottish prison, the cheering crowd at a Tripoli airport, the furious families of the 270 people who died in the Lockerbie bombing.
Britain on Friday condemned the "upsetting" scenes of jubilation in Tripoli at the return of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and considered canceling a royal visit to Libya as a sign of displeasure. President Barack Obama said the warm welcome in Libya was "highly objectionable."
Despite the strong words, the diplomatic end of the decades-long Lockerbie saga is unlikely to damage steadily warming relations between the West and Libya, a country once reviled as a pariah state.
"It will introduce a note of caution in the West's dealing with Libya," said Diederik Vandewalle, a Libya specialist at Dartmouth College. "I don't think it will have much of an impact at all."
Thousands of young men greeted al-Megrahi's plane at a Tripoli airport after he was released from a Scottish prison Thursday on compassionate grounds. Some threw flower petals as the 57-year-old former Libyan intelligence agent stepped from the jet.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemned the scenes as "deeply distressing" and said the way Moammar Gadhafi's government behaved in the next few days would help determine whether Libya is accepted back into the international fold.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown had written to the Libyan leader before al-Megrahi's release urging Libya to "act with sensitivity" when he returned.
White House spokesman Robert 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, al-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 used to snap up any opportunity to snub the West and could easily bring out hundreds of thousands to cheer if it chose to. It suggested that Libya is wary of hurting its ties with the U.S. and Europe and had listened to Obama's warning not to give al-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 added.