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Death of Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi 'doesn't close the book'

Ismail Zitouny / Reuters

Men prepare to bury the body of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi at a cemetery in Janzour, near Tripoli, on Monday.

NEW YORK -- The death of the only man convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing has left some victims' relatives relieved and others raising questions about his guilt and whether others went unpunished.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence official, died Sunday of cancer, his family said. His death renewed pleas from some victims' relatives for further investigation of the bombing.

"It closes a chapter but it doesn't close the book. We know he wasn't the only person involved," Frank Dugan, president of the group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, said from Alexandria, Va.

Al-Megrahi was convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans. Syracuse University in central New York was particularly hard hit: 35 students on the way home for Christmas break died in the bombing.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, died after a long illness.  NBC's Richard Engel reports.

$2.7 billion in compensation
Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi handed over al-Megrahi and a second suspect to Scottish authorities after years of punishing U.N. sanctions. In 2003, Gadhafi acknowledged responsibility, though not guilt, for the bombing and paid compensation of about $2.7 billion to victims' families.

Some relatives attended al-Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands. When he was released to Libya from a Scottish prison in 2009 on humanitarian grounds — he was supposedly close to death — they were outraged when al-Megrahi returned to a hero's welcome from Gadhafi and then lived far longer than the few months the doctors had predicted.

Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose daughter was among the Syracuse University students on the flight, said al-Megrahi deserved no compassion.

"The fact that he was able to get out and live with his family these past few years is an appalling miscarriage of justice. There was no excuse for that," Cohen said Sunday. "He should have died in the Scottish prison. He should have been tried in the United States and faced capital punishment."

Dec. 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103, exploded over Lockerbie Scotland killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 on the ground. It was not immediately known a bomb exploded on board. NBC's Tom Brokaw, Peter Kent and Robert Hager report.

The views of other victims' families on al-Megrahi's role in the bombing vary widely.

"Megrahi is the 271st victim of Lockerbie," said David Ben-Ayreah, who represents some British families of victims. He attended the trial and still believes al-Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing.

'Very happy'
But Eileen Walsh, a Glen Rock, N.J., resident whose father, brother and sister died in the explosion, said she was "very happy" to hear about al-Megrahi's death. She had just attended Mass on Sunday when she received numerous text messages.

"I'm glad he's gone, but there's no real closure. There's nothing but a bad taste in my mouth," she said.

"My mother died of cancer in 2004, and because of him, three of the most important people in her life weren't there to help her in her time of need," Walsh said.

Al-Megrahi was found guilty under Scottish law of secretly loading a suitcase bomb onto a plane at Malta's Luqa Airport, where he was head of operations for Libyan Arab Airlines in December 1988.

The former Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of taking part in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing but was released after eight years for health reasons, has died in Libya of prostate cancer. NBC's Jim Maceda reports from London.

The suitcase was transferred at Frankfurt to another flight and then onto New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 at London's Heathrow airport, concluded Scottish judges sitting at a converted Dutch military base selected as a neutral trial venue.

Al-Megrahi, who was handed over by Gadhafi under a U.N.-brokered deal, always insisted he was merely an airline executive, not a Libyan intelligence agent as prosecutors charged.

Miscarriage of justice?
Al-Megrahi's co-defendant was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi insisted he also had nothing to do with the bombing. Those who believed him got a boost in 2007 when a three-year investigation by a Scottish tribunal found that new evidence — and old evidence withheld from trial — suggested that al-Megrahi "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Its 800-page report prompted an appeal on al-Megrahi's behalf, but by then his fate was in the hands of politicians in London, Tripoli and Edinburgh, all of whom jockeyed for position as Libya rebuilt its ties with Britain and al-Megrahi's health deteriorated.

Still protesting his innocence, al-Megrahi dropped the appeal in a bid to clear the path for his release on compassionate grounds. 

Al-Megrahi's death should not be an excuse to stop trying to find out who was behind the bombing, Cohen said. She called on U.S. and British officials to "dig even deeper" into the case.

The Scottish government said Sunday that it will continue investigating the Lockerbie bombing.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting the United States on Sunday, said that al-Megrahi should never have been freed.

However, Britain's ITV News reported that Cameron dismissed calls for a new inquiry into al-Megrahi's conviction, saying the court case was "properly run and properly dealt with."

Read more coverage from Britain's ITV News

Bert Ammerman of River Vale, N.J., lost his brother in the bombing. He blames the U.S. and Britain for failing to track all leads in the case and noted that Gadhafi's former spy chief was arrested in March in Mauritania.

"He holds the key to what actually took place in Pan Am 103," Ammerman said. "He knows what other individuals were involved and, more importantly, what other countries were involved."

After Gadhafi's fall, Britain asked Libya's new rulers to help fully investigate but they put off any probe.

"Ironically, 24 years later, I now have more confidence in the new Libyan government than the British or American governments to find the truth because I believe Libya would like the truth to come out to show that they were not the only country involved," Ammerman said.

Jim Swire, whose 19-year-old daughter, Flora, died in the bombing, is a leading voice for some of the British families who believe al-Megrahi was innocent. Swire, who attended the trial in the Netherlands, asked for further inquiry from the Scottish government.

''I've been satisfied for some years that this man had nothing to do with the murder of my daughter and I grit my teeth every time I hear newscasters say 'Lockerbie bomber has died,'" Swire told the BBC on Sunday. ''This is a sad day."

'Smelled of a deal for oil'
Al-Megrahi's brother Mohammed told Reuters that a funeral would take place on Monday.

"My brother was surrounded by his wife, children and his mother as he took his last breath. He was too sick to utter anything on his deathbed," his brother Abdulhakim added. "We will always tell the world that my brother was innocent."

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who wanted the Libyan government that took over after Gadhafi's ouster and killing by rebels to take al-Megrahi into custody, said his return to Libya was a major injustice.

"The whole deal smelled of a deal for oil for this man's freedom and that was almost blasphemy given what a horrible person he was and the terrible destruction and tragedy that he caused," Schumer said. "I don't know if we'll ever get to the bottom of it now."

Msnbc.com staff, ITV News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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