(photo credit: AP)
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi welcomed with a hug the only man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people and praised Scotland's leaders for "their courageously right and humanitarian decision" to release him.
Gadhafi's meeting Friday with Abdel Baset Megrahi, which was shown on Libyan state television, is sure to fuel the debate about how Libya should be treating the man they once turned over for trial.
Megrahi returned to Libya Thursday after Scottish officials announced he was being freed on compassionate grounds because he is suffering from terminal prostate cancer. The decision to free Megrahi has been met with condemnation by many of the victims' families and the US, which has called for him to be put under house arrest.
The US and Britain were also outraged at the warm welcome Megrahi received at the airport when he arrived in Tripoli, where he was met by a crowd of hundreds, some who threw flower petals.
Gadhafi hugged Megrahi, who at one point kissed the Libyan leader's hand, before sitting down with the former Libyan intelligence agent and his family. Gadhafi lauded Scotland for their decision in the first official reaction by Libya to the release.
"To my friends in Scotland; the Scottish National Party, and Scottish Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, I praise their courage for having proved their independence in decision making, despite the unacceptable and unreasonable pressures they faced. Nevertheless, they took this courageously right and humanitarian decision," he said.
Gadhafi went on to cite "my friend (Gordon) Brown, the prime minister of Britain, his government, the queen of Britain, Elizabeth, and Prince Andrew, who all contributed to encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacles."
Gadhafi compared Megrahi's return to his government's 2007 release of five Bulgarian nurses and a naturalized Palestinian doctor imprisoned on charges of deliberately infecting with HIV more than 400 Libyan children. The nurses denied the charges and said they were tortured into confessing.
The Libyan leader noted there were no such widespread concerns for the families of the infected children when the nurses returned home to a hero's welcome.
"Do we not have feelings and they have feelings?" Gadhafi said.
Libya has accepted formal responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but many there see Megrahi as an innocent victim scapegoated by the West.
Megrahi was the only person convicted in the explosion, which killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground and was Britain's worst terrorist attack.
He has maintained his innocence even as he dropped his appeal as part of the process that eventually allowed him to be released from prison.
During an interview Friday with The Times of London in his Tripoli home, Megrahi said he had abandoned his appeal in order to spend the rest of what time he had left at home with his family. Megrahi also promised that before he died he would put forward what he described as evidence that would exonerate him of the crimes he's accused of, but gave no further details.
Megrahi insisted that Libya was not to blame for the Lockerbie bombing, but refused to speculate on who he thought was the real culprit.
When asked about Obama's suggestion that Megrahi be subject to house arrest for the duration of his time in Libya, Megrahi laughed and told the newspaper that the only place he had to go was the hospital.
A newspaper photograph showed the 57-year-old wearing a white flowing robe, surrounded by his smiling family.