THE United States has intervened in the growing row over the fate of the Lockerbie bomber, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the justice secretary not to release the man convicted of Britain's biggest terrorist atrocity.
In a phone call to Kenny MacAskill, she said Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland. The move came after it emerged the Libyan might be returned to his home country within seven days after he dropped a second appeal against his conviction.
A Scottish Government spokesman last night confirmed Mrs Clinton had spoken to Mr MacAskill, "who has spoken to all interested parties and was able to confirm that he was still considering matters".
A spokesman for the US State Department said it opposed sending Megrahi back to Libya to serve his sentence. He said: "(Mrs Clinton] spoke to the justice minister in the last day and expressed again fairly strongly our view that Megrahi should serve out his entire sentence in Scotland."
The condition of Megrahi, 57, who has terminal prostate cancer, has taken a "significant turn for the worse", his lawyers said. This prompted reports he might be freed on compassionate grounds. But the ending of his appeal also opens the way for Megrahi to be sent back to Libya via a prisoner transfer agreement.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack, and who has campaigned for Megrahi's release, was disappointed at the development.
He said: "The Obama administration has inherited a situation where an innocent man has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and is on the verge of dying in a Scottish jail. That they should take this attitude reflects an ongoing determination by the US to ensure that this travesty of justice continues and I think it is very sad."
He hoped Mr MacAskill would resist pressure to hold Megrahi in Scotland.
Megrahi's lawyers will formally apply to abandon his case at the appeal court in Edinburgh on Tuesday. On the same day, the Scottish Government's cabinet will meet to discuss proposals to send Megrahi home.
Once a decision is taken, it is unlikely there would be a long delay in moving Megrahi, especially as his health is deteriorating. He is now expected to be freed next week to return to his family, and could be back in Libya in time for the start of Ramadan on Friday. He has served only eight years of a 27-year minimum sentence – less than two weeks for each of his victims.
US families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing called the development "vile and unforgivable" and said the Libyan should "rot in jail".
The development has also prompted accusations that Megrahi had come under pressure to drop the appeal as part of a deal to improve relations between Britain and Libya.
There had also been hopes a second appeal would shed new light on what happened in the lead-up to 21 December, 1988.
Former West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell told The Scotsman there would be "huge sighs of relief" in Whitehall and the Crown Prosecution Service. He has long believed Megrahi is innocent and that the truth was covered up.
"When I last met him, he made it clear he wanted to clear his name," Mr Dalyell said.
He added: "It means that Lockerbie will be one of those mysteries, like the assassination of President Kennedy, that will remain unsolved for a long time – possibly forever."
Mr MacAskill insisted yesterday he was not part of any deal and "no decision has been reached yet". Privately, Scottish Government sources also said they had "nothing to gain" from the appeal being dropped.
First Minister Alex Salmond also rejected the claims: "Nothing the Scottish Government has done or said suggests pressure on anybody to do anything.
"What Mr Megrahi does with his appeal is a matter for him."
But speculation has been heightened over the possible nature of a deal involving Megrahi as a bargaining chip, with an open letter from Shrewsbury Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski.
He argued that Megrahi was an important tool in getting Libya to move on other issues, including turning over the killers of PC Yvonne Fletcher, who was murdered outside the Libyan embassy in 1984, and getting compensation for victims of the IRA, which was supplied with weapons from Libya.
"These series of issues can only be negotiated at government to government level between the UK and Libya," he said in the letter to Mr MacAskill. "By making a decision on Megrahi now you are, in effect, throwing away a major bargaining chip."
On Thursday, a spokesman for US president Barack Obama said the administration opposed early release.
It is possible a prisoner transfer that would see Megrahi serve the rest of his sentence in a Libyan jail might placate the Americans, although there is scepticism over whether he would actually end up in prison or would return as a hero.
Last night, calls for Mr MacAskill to reach a prompt decision intensified in the wake of Mrs Clinton's intervention.
A Scottish Labour Party spokesman said: "We have already said he needs to clarify the situation and set out what he intends to do. I think Hillary Clinton's intervention underlines the need for him to do that."