By David Williams and Ian Drury
Last updated at 12:18 AM on 21st August 2009
This was the moment the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing flew home to a hero's welcome.
As thousands cheered, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was escorted down the steps of his plane by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Earlier this month, Saif Gaddafi met Lord Mandelson in Corfu, raising suspicions that a deal was being made to free 57-year-old Megrahi.
Yesterday Megrahi, who is dying of cancer, was freed on compassionate grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
The decision was bitterly condemned by relatives of many of the 270 victims of the bombing and branded a mistake by President Barack Obama.
Mr Obama said his government had told Libya there must be no celebration for Megrahi.
But thousands of people wore T-shirts bearing Megrahi's picture and waved Libyan and Scottish flags as he arrived at a military airbase in Tripoli.
Thousands of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags, and Megrahi posters converge on the airport in Tripoli to show their support
But in Britain and the U.S., TV coverage of Megrahi's flight brought new anguish to bereaved families.
There was angry contempt for Mr MacAskill, who spent 24 minutes delivering his decision.
He admitted Megrahi had shown no compassion to his victims, but added: 'That alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.
He said the Libyan has only months to live and 'now faces justice from a higher power ... he is going to die'.
Megrahi was sentenced to life in January 2001, with a minimum term of 27 years, for the bombing of PanAm flight 103 in December 1988. He served just a third of that - two weeks for every victim.
Suse Lowenstein, of Montauk, New York, whose 21-year-old son Alexander Lowenstein was killed, spoke for many in the U.S. when she said: 'It is so devastating and so difficult to accept that the one man we had responsible for the murders is going home to die in the arms of his family. It is just beyond comprehension.
'He has the luxury to be at home with his family, which our son did not have.'
Kara Weipz, 36, from New Jersey, who lost her student brother Rick, 20, said : 'I think it is a horrible decision. It's just utterly despicable.
'Why should he be returned to Libya? That's not what we were promised. We were always told he would serve out his full sentence in Scotland.'
Outrage: Barack Obama, pictured on radio yesterday, urged the Libyan government not to give Megrahi a hero's welcome. He's pictured right, covering his face in Glasgow before boarding his flight home, where he was greeted by thousands of cheering fans
More than relaxed: Megrahi would have been feeling ecstatic as he walked up the stairs to waiting jet at Glasgow Airport knowing that he would soon be in the arms of his family
Anger has been compounded by claims that the release was brokered by Tony Blair during a meeting with Gaddafi two years ago - just hours before BP unveiled a £500million oil contract.
The former Prime Minister has been accused of a 'blood money' deal to protect Britain's oil interests.
Relatives of some of the British victims, who believe Megrahi is innocent, had backed his release.
But they are upset that he dropped his second appeal against conviction - an appeal they believed would lead to a public inquiry and the truth finally emerging.
Fury: A police convoy carrying Megrahi leaves Greenock prison near Glasgow as people protest against his release
Bound for freedom: The private plane carrying the dying Megrahi takes off at Glasgow airport after Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill freed him on compassionate grounds
Last night Megrahi issued an extraordinary statement aimed directly at the families. He expressed sympathy for them but maintained his innocence.
He said: 'Many people, including the relatives of those who died in and over Lockerbie, are, I know, upset that my appeal has come to an end; that nothing more can be done about the circumstances surrounding the Lockerbie bombing.
'I share their frustration. I had most to gain and nothing to lose about the whole truth coming out - until my diagnosis of cancer.
Fate sealed: Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announces his decision to free Megrahi
'To those victims' relatives who can bear to hear me say this, they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered.'
It went on: 'The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction. I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will now never be lifted.'
In his explanation of the release, Mr MacAskill strongly condemned Gordon Brown for the government's 'highly regrettable' conduct over the trial and conviction of Megrahi accusing the Prime Minister of shrouding in secrecy crucial details surrounding the case case.
Just an hour after Mr MacAskill's announcement at lunchtime yesterday, Megrahi was driven through the gates of Greenock prison in a white prison van with an escort of police cars.
The Libyan Airbus - one of Colonel Gaddafi's personal planes - was waiting at Glasgow airport.
The prison van pulled up near the foot of the airliner's steps and the door slid open to provide the first glimpse of Megrahi since news of his pending release was leaked last week.
Wearing a white baseball cap and what appeared to be a white tracksuit, he emerged from the van looking stooped and frail.
But he needed only the help of a stick to walk the 29 steps into the plane and freedom, his release papers clutched in his hand.
Atrocity: Police carry a body away from the crash site of the Pan Am Flight 103 in Scotland in 1988. It killed 270, many of them Americans