THE National Health Service is not the only issue dividing American and British opinion at the moment. The probable release from Scottish prison of the Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is enraging some Americans who lost family in the bomb attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988; opinion among affected British families is split, with some believing that al-Megrahi did not receive a fair trial before being convicted of planting the bomb and others being convinced of his guilt. It is difficult to unravel the many issues surrounding this case: they include Britain's considerable economic interest in building good relations with Libya, especially over BP's big investment there, and Col Gaddafi's growing emergence as an international statesman.

However, the single most persuasive consideration leading to Britain's support for al-Megrahi's early release on compassionate grounds (he has terminal prostate cancer) may be his impending appeal against his conviction.

Many experts who followed his original trial believe that new evidence and a fresh look would lead to embarrassing questions over the validity of the original verdict. Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in Lockerbie, points out the improbability of the key evidence that the bomb and its timer had passed through baggage handling at three airports -- Malta, Frankfurt and Heathrow -- before exploding over Scotland. The most likely deal, therefore, is that al-Megrahi will drop his appeal and in return will be released to Libya to die.


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