By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scottish authorities have lost contact, at least temporarily, with the Libyan convicted in the December 1988 bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Scottish authorities told Reuters that until late last week they had been in regular contact with alleged former Libyan intelligence operative Abdel Baset al-Megrahi as part of the conditions for his release from a Scottish prison in 2009.
They attribute the loss of contact with Megrahi, who had been serving a minimum 27-year prison sentence for the bombing of Pan Am 103, to chaotic conditions in Libya caused by rebels' climactic push to oust long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Scottish officials say that they expect that when the situation in Libya calmed, contacts with Megrahi will resume.
However, if Megrahi does not reappear in the relatively near future, it could cause fresh strains in relations between Scotland, Britain, and the United States. U.S. politicians and the Obama administration harshly criticized Scotland's decision to release Megrahi on "compassionate" grounds.
Some U.S. lawmakers are already demanding that any new Libyan government extradite the Libyan to the United States, where the Justice Department and FBI maintain open indictments and investigations into the bombing case.
Scotland's regional government, which operates a criminal justice system independent of London, decided to release Megrahi because he supposedly was suffering from advanced terminal prostate cancer.
But his release was conditional upon his agreement that he make himself "available for meetings and discussions by telephone or video link" with officials of the criminal justice department of East Renfrewshire, a county south of Glasgow, where Megrahi's family resided while he was imprisoned.
On Friday, George Barbour, a spokesman for East Renfrewshire, acknowledged that officials had been trying to reach Megrahi since last weekend without success.
Barbour said that up until the end of last week, the county had maintained regular dealings with Megrahi and that contacts were "up to date."
However, following last weekend's push into Tripoli by anti-Gaddafi rebels, Megrahi's "status ... changed," Barbour told Reuters.
Given Megrahi's record in complying with conditions of his release, Barbour indicated, for the moment county officials are giving him the benefit of the doubt. If the county can't reach him after the situation in Libya has stabilized, Barbour said, the Scottish government would be notified.
In an e-mail to Reuters, a Scottish government spokesman said: "The Scottish Government is in contact with the Libyan National Transitional Council in London, and any change in Mr. Al-Megrahi's circumstances would be a matter for discussion with them as the new duly constituted and legitimate government of Libya.
As of now, he said, the Libyan "has not been in breach of his license conditions. Contact with Mr Al-Megrahi by the criminal justice social work service of East Renfrewshire Council is not due for some time yet, and if his circumstances were to change then that would be a matter for us to discuss with the new Libyan authorities."
At the time they decided to release Megrahi from prison on health grounds, Scottish officials said they believed his illness was so advanced he would be dead within three months. His survival has infuriated relatives of victims who died in the Pan Am 103 bombing and their supporters in Congress.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao)