ystery surrounded the Lockerbie bomber last night after he could not be reached at his home or in hospital.
Libyan officials could say nothing about the whereabouts of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, and his Scottish monitors could not contact him by telephone. They will try again to speak to him today but if they fail to reach him, the Scottish government could face a new crisis.
Under the terms of his release from jail, the bomber cannot change his address or leave Tripoli, and must keep in regular communication with East Renfrewshire Council.
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic and relatives of the 270 people who died in the 1988 bombing expressed anger about al-Megrahi’s disappearance. Richard Baker, Labour’s justice spokesman in the Scottish Parliament, said the whole affair was turning into a shambles and putting Scotland’s reputation at risk. “This flags up just how ludicrous it is that East Renfrewshire Council, a local council thousands of miles away from Libya, is responsible for supervising al-Megrahi’s conditions of licence,” he said.
Bomb fear in UK's worst air disaster
About 300 people were killed last night when a Pan American Boeing 747 crashed and exploded on the small town of Lockerbie
Eliot Engel, a New York congressman, said: “I think it was a tremendous mistake to let him out in the first place. I don’t think a convicted terrorist has any integrity to abide by any type of agreement.”
Relatives of the victims were furious in August when Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because he was expected to die of prostate cancer within three months.
On Sunday evening The Times called at the bomber’s home in suburban Tripoli. A policeman sitting on a plastic chair outside was asked to deliver a message to al-Megrahi. He spoke no English, but indicated that al-Megrahi was not there.
The next day The Times visited the Tripoli Medical Centre where alMegrahi was treated soon after his return to Libya. The receptionists said he had left the hospital some time ago.
Back at al-Megrahi’s home, there was no sign of activity. One of three security officers sitting in a grey Mercedes car outside said: “They’ve all gone.” He refused to elaborate.
Alerted by The Times, Jonathan Hinds, of East Renfrewshire Council, tried to telephone al-Megrahi at his home yesterday. He spoke to a Libyan man who said al-Megrahi was too ill to speak to him.
Mr Hinds has called al-Megrahi every other Tuesday since August, and has always been able to speak to him. Yesterday was not one of the regular Tuesdays, so al-Megrahi would not have been expecting a call.
“We will continue to attempt to call Mr Megrahi tomorrow and will then consider the situation,” a council spokesman said. If there were grounds for suspecting al-Megrahi was breaching the terms of his release, “we would report that to the Scottish Government and it would be up to them to decide what action to take”.
It is entirely possible that al-Megrahi was too ill to speak. Libyan doctors have sent monthly reports on his health to Scottish officials, but these have been kept private. Al-Megrahi has not been seen in public since September 9, when he briefly met a delegation of African politicians at the Tripoli Medical Centre. He was in a wheelchair, said nothing and coughed repeatedly. Observers said he looked frail. His older brother, Mohammed, has told The Times that al-Megrahi had been examined by Italian cancer specialists and that he was receiving his fourth dose of chemotherapy. He asked that he be left alone.
Tony Kelly, al-Megrahi’s Scottish lawyer, refused to discuss his client, and the British Embassy in Tripoli had no comment, but other British sources were adamant that al-Megrahi was terminally ill.
Even so, Bill Aitken, the Scottish Conservative justice spokesman, called for an immediate investigation. He said: “This is outrageous and there will be intense anger that Britain’s biggest mass murderer appears to be able to disappear.”
Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter died on Pan Am Flight 103, said: “I’d certainly wish to know what is happening to him. This is a demonstration of how it is almost impossible to keep tabs on him — but he could also be seriously ill, so that must not be ruled out.”