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Miliband: Lockerbie bomber release was clearly wrong

Labour leadership contender David Miliband has condemned the decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing as clearly wrong.

His comments in an exclusive interview in The Herald today represent a dramatic change in his previous position on Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi’s release on medical grounds.

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They were made as criticism of the decision by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill intensified on both sides of the Atlantic.

The SNP last night hit back at the shadow foreign secretary’s comments. A source said: “This ludicrous about-turn by Miliband will damage his credibility and do him ­absolutely no good, either in his party or anywhere else.”

Last night, the White House and No 10 said Megrahi’s release would be discussed during talks between US President Barack Obama and David Cameron, who flew to the US yesterday.

When Labour was in government Miliband avoided commenting on the rights or wrongs of MacAskill’s ­ruling, but he now suggests the medical evidence, which said Megrahi had only three months to live, was flawed.

Asked if it was a mistake to release ­Megrahi, Miliband told The Herald: “It was clearly wrong because it was done on the basis he had less than three months to live and it’s now 11 months on.”

The frontrunner to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader added: “The decision was made in accordance with our constitution and so it was a decision for the Scottish minister to make.

“Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds and, as I understand it, that depends on him having less than three months to live, so something has gone badly wrong.”

Miliband acknowledges MacAskill made his decision in good faith but ­stresses he understands the anger felt by families of the American victims. This is in sharp contrast to his earlier reaction to the Libyan’s release in August last year.

In a Commons statement in October, Miliband pointed out that British interests “would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya”.

His criticism today piled fresh pressure on MacAskill over his handling of the release.

Last week, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, described MacAskill’s decision as a mistake and yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron called it completely and utterly wrong.

Cameron is keen to defuse an increasingly volatile atmosphere in America, where BP -- under fire over the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster -- has become embroiled in the Megrahi case because the unrelated “deal in the desert”, or prisoner transfer agreement (PTA), worth £590 million, enables the oil giant to drill off the Libyan coast.

Senators have now launched an inquiry into claims there was an oil-for-terrorist deal and could call British witnesses during their deliberations. They had requested a meeting with the PM but his office said he would be unable to attend because of his tight schedule.

Cameron is due to tell Obama he regrets the pain caused by the Libyan’s release. Of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing, 190 were American.

Last night, a Scottish Government source said: “It was David Miliband’s own government that did the deal in the desert and Miliband was Foreign Secretary when the UK signed the PTA with Libya with the clear intention of sending Megrahi back to Libya.

“It was tawdry and Kenny MacAskill rightly rejected the PTA application. This ludicrous about-turn by Miliband will damage his credibility.”

At Westminster, Conservative backbencher Daniel Kawczynski, called for a public inquiry into Megrahi’s release and demanded an apology from MacAskill for his “gross error”.

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