LONDON (Reuters) - Families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing stood sharply divided on Thursday over reports that the former Libyan agent jailed for life for the attack is to be freed on compassionate grounds.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, 57, who was convicted of murder in 2001, is dying of prostate cancer and could be released from a Scottish jail as early as next week, unconfirmed media reports said.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said no decision had been taken, while a spokesman for Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said the reports were "complete speculation." Megrahi's lawyer could not be reached for comment.
A Libyan official in Tripoli said a deal was "in the last steps," but stressed both sides had agreed to keep quiet until Megrahi was back in Libya.
Megrahi was found guilty under Scottish law at a trial in the Netherlands of blowing up a Pan Am Boeing 747 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie as it flew from London to New York. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
The bomb killed all 259 people on board, including 189 Americans, and 11 people on the ground.
Relatives of British victims said they had never been convinced of Megrahi's guilt and broadly welcomed the reports of his possible release.
They said the evidence against Megrahi, which largely depended on the eyewitness testimony of a shopkeeper in Malta, was seriously flawed and fell short of the standard required to prove the Libyan's guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
"I don't believe the verdict is right," Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, told BBC radio. "It would be an abominable cruelty to force this man to die in prison."
"FLYING A KITE"
Scottish lawyer and academic Robert Black, who helped devise the original trial format and has criticised the guilty verdict, said he thought the Scottish authorities wanted to avoid Libya portraying Megrahi's punishment as a death sentence.
"I think they don't want this man to die in a Scottish jail," he told Reuters. "That is an overriding consideration."
Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter died in the attack, said it was crucial that Megrahi's appeal in the Scottish courts was allowed to continue to find out exactly what happened.
"I am not absolutely convinced of Megrahi's guilt nor of his innocence," she told the BBC. "We simply at this point do not know enough ... to be able to make that judgement."
Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said news of Megrahi's possible release may have been leaked to gauge public opinion before a final decision is made.
"Perhaps the authorities are flying a kite to see what the reaction will be," he told the BBC. "These things can change and I think the public reaction might well change the decision."
Noman Benotman, a European-based Libyan political analyst, said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Scottish government wanted to release Megrahi, but had yet to convince relatives of the U.S. victims.
"They want to finish with this problem," he told Reuters. But the remaining obstacle is the families of the American victims. They are putting a lot of pressure on for him to stay in jail. They are lobbying for that ... pressing very hard."
American relatives of some of those killed said there can be no doubt about Megrahi's guilt after it was tested during an 84-day trial and upheld at the first appeal.
"There is no question in my mind that this man is guilty," Kathleen Flynn, whose son died in the bombing, told GMTV.
Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tom was killed on the flight, said the release of Megrahi would be "insane, immoral, reprehensible," adding: "He should finish out his term in Scotland, pass away and then send him home in a casket."
Four years after Megrahi's conviction, Libya accepted responsibility and agreed to pay $2.7 billion (1.6 billion pounds) in compensation to victims' families. That helped clear the way for Western states to lift sanctions and restore their ties with Libya.