THE Lockerbie bomber left prison today after being freed to die with his family in Libya.
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who has terminal cancer, was driven from HMP Greenock to Glasgow airport, where a jet was waiting to return him to Tripoli, after he was released on compassionate grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
His decision has been heavily criticised by victims' family members, opposition politicans in Scotland and the US government.
Megrahi, 57, has served eight years of a life sentence for murdering 270 people when a Pan Am plane was blown up over Lockerbie in 1988.
Dozens of journalists from around the world were outside the entrance of the jail as its blue automatic door slid open to let the convicted bomber out at 2.36pm.
Mr MacAskill said Megrahi "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power".
Mr MacAskill added: "It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."
In a statement that lasted more than 20 minutes, Mr MacAskill said 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."
Mr MacAskill said: "I am conscious there are deeply held feelings and that many will disagree whatever my decision. However a decision has to be made.
"Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands, the pain and suffering will remain forever.
"Some hurt can never heal, some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain."
He had earlier rejected a separate application by Megrahi to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya.
The decision was met with anger in the US from both the White House and from relatives of victims and was also condemned by opposition politicians in Scotland.
Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, MSP, said: "If I was First Minister, Megrahi would not be going back to Libya.
"The decision to release him is wrong.
"He was convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in our history, the mass murder of 270 people.
"While one can have sympathy for the family of a gravely ill prisoner, on balance our duty is to honour and respect the victims of Lockerbie and have compassion for them.
"The SNP's handling of this case has let down Scotland.
"The cynical manner in which this decision has been spun out over the last month with a series of leaks, briefings and the Justice Secretary's ill-advised visit to Greenock Prison was not fitting behaviour by a Scottish government."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott MSP said: "This is a disappointing verdict.
"Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi stands convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in modern Scottish history. Scotland's most senior judges agreed that he should serve this term in a Scottish prison.
"The real lesson of this shambles for the SNP is that Government is about responsibility, not publicity."
In a statement, Robert Gibbs, press secretary to the White House, said: "The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdelbaset Mohmed Al Megrahi.
"Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Scotland on December 21, 1988.
"As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the Government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland.
"On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones. We recognise the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever."
The families of American victims also reacted angrily to the news.
Kara Weipz, of Mt Laurel, New Jersey, lost her 20-year-old brother Richard Monetti in the terrorist attack.
She said: "I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion. It is an utter insult and utterly disgusting."
Megrahi dropped his appeal against conviction on Tuesday.
Over the years there have been many calls for a full public inquiry, which might disclose evidence which did not come out during the trial.
Mr MacAskill said the Scottish Government "would be happy" to co-operate if an inquiry into the atrocity went ahead.
He said: "There remain concerns to some on the wider issues of the Lockerbie atrocity.
"This is a global issue, and international in its nature. The questions to be asked and answered are beyond the jurisdiction of Scots law and the restricted remit of the Scottish Government.
"If a further inquiry were felt to be appropriate, then it should be initiated by those with the required power and authority.
"The Scottish Government would be happy to fully co-operate in such an inquiry."
He also hit out at the UK Government for its "highly regrettable" actions before and after Megrahi's trial.
Mr MacAskill underlined his opposition to a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) thrashed out by Tony Blair's government and Libya.
He also complained that no information had been sent from the UK Government to back up American pressure for the Libyan to serve out his life sentence in Scotland.