LONDON, August 20, 2009 — -- Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing, which killed 270 people, received a hero's welcome back home in Libya today just hours after being released from a Scottish jail.
He was greeted by a large enthusisatic crowds at the airport in Tripoli, according to The Associated Press.
Al-Megrahi, 57, served only eight years of the life sentence imposed after his 2001 conviction.
Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said he understands people will disagree with the decision but said al-Megrahi "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is terminal, final and irreversible. He is going to die."
In Washington, the White House said it "deeply regrets" the decision to release al-Megrahi.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement said the U.S. has repeatedly maintained that al-Megrahi should serve out his term in Scotland. "Today, we remember those whose lives were lost on December 21, 1988, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live each day with the loss of their loved ones due to this heinous crime," Clinton said.
Families of the victims were dumbfounded when it was reported earlier this week that his release was likely.
Susan Cohen's only child, Theodora, a student at Syracuse University, died when a bomb in the baggage compartment brought down Pan Am flight 103 on Dec. 21,1988. All 259 passengers - most of whom were American - and 11 people on the ground died when the plane crashed in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland.
"The pain is there all the time. Anyone who has lost a child will tell you that," Cohen told ABC News.
"That was a plane full of young students like my daughter. There were little children. There was a family of three little girls on that plane," she said.
Former Libyan intelligence officer al-Megrahi was convicted on all 270 counts of murder. In an interview with ABC News in 1991, he insisted he was innocent, asking, "Why would I go there [to Scotland] to have to prove that I am innocent?"
Al-Megrahi was imprisoned in 2001, sentenced to a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison. But a 2007 review of the case opened the ground for him to file an appeal against the sentence, and many in the U.K. say that he is innocent.
His release is a decision many American survivors don't understand.
"What have we become, if we can release a terrorist like this? What have we become? I say it's cowardness [sic]. We [are] certainly not the greatest generation," Cohen said.
Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tom was killed in Lockerbie, told The Associated Press, "It's insane, it's a travesty of justice and totally unacceptable."
Hillary Clinton Calls Lockerbie Release 'Absolutely Wrong'
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has protested his release, telling reporters, "I just think it's absolutely wrong to release someone who has been in prison based on the evidence about his involvement in such a horrendous crime."
In the U.K., however, many are in favor of releasing him. British Rev. John Mosey, whose daughter Helga, 19, died in the crash, told the AP, "It is right he should go home to die in dignity with his family. I believe it is our Christian duty to show mercy."
Still, several victims claim this is all part of a British deal for access to Libya's oil riches - a deal struck two years ago by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British foreign office insists that no such deal exists and that the decision to release al-Megrahi was made solely by the Scottish authorities. In recent years, overseas energy companies, including the U.K.'s BP PLC, have moved into Libya to exploit its oil and gas resources.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has been pushing for al-Megrahi's release. Last year, the United States and Libya signed a compensation deal for the U.S. victims of the Pan Am crash, following Gadhafi's renunciation of terrorism as a state policy and his decision to end the country's nuclear program.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.