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Medics freed following Libya-EU deal
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09:08, July 25, 2007

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Six foreign medics convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV were freed yesterday after a "full partnership" deal between Tripoli and the European Union ended their eight-year ordeal.

Their return to Bulgaria ends what Libya's critics called a human rights scandal and could allow the long-isolated north African state to complete a process of normalizing ties with the West.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov pardoned the five nurses and a Palestinian doctor who recently took Bulgarian citizenship after their arrival in Sofia on a French jet. The medics said they were innocent and had been tortured to confess.

"I know I am free, I know I am on Bulgarian soil, but I still cannot believe it," 48-year-old nurse Christiana Valcheva said as the medics and their families wept and hugged each other at the airport.

The Bulgarian nurses were flown to Sofia after the EU, which Bulgaria joined in January, agreed a last-minute breakthrough deal with Libya on medical aid and political ties.

"We hope to go on further normalizing our relations with Libya. Our relations with Libya were in a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue," EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam said the deal had opened the way to "full cooperation and partnership between Libya and the European Union".

Bulgaria and its allies in Brussels and Washington had suggested that not freeing the nurses would hurt Libya's efforts to emerge from decades of diplomatic isolation imposed for what the West called its support of terrorism.

Shalgam said the deal involved EU support and assistance for the more than 400 infected children in European hospitals for the rest of their lives.

The accord provides for the rehabilitation of two hospitals and a medical center in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the HIV outbreak occurred. The EU also offered assistance to Libya in education, archaeology and stemming illegal migration.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner traveled to Tripoli with Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of the French president, to help free the medics and flew with them to Sofia. She signed the deal with Libya, a European source said.

Nineteen Bulgarian medical workers were initially detained in 1999 and six stood trial. One Bulgarian doctor was released in May 2004 when the five nurses and the Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death.

Foreign HIV experts testified that the infections started before the six found guilty arrived at the hospital, and were more likely to be the result of poor hygiene.

The victims' families have said the case was part of a Western attempt to undermine Muslims in Libya. Fifty-six of the children have died.

Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the medics' release. It said Libya should now proceed with much-needed reforms to its criminal justice system to ensure such a case never happened there again.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had pledged to make the medics' release a foreign policy priority and said he would visit Libya on Wednesday to help Tripoli's reintegration with the West.

The medics, who looked in good health, and their families will stay for the next few days in the presidential residency on the outskirts of Sofia where they will undergo medical checks.

The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Alhajouj, has lived most of his life in Libya. He will likely travel to the Netherlands on Friday to visit his family there, his lawyer told Dutch news agency ANP.

Libya's choppy relations with the West

The medics' release was a milestone in more than 20 years of choppy relations between Libya and the West:

January 1986 - US halts economic and commercial relations with Libya.

April 1986 - Libya blamed for fatal bombing of West Berlin disco.

April 1986 - US aircraft bomb Tripoli, Benghazi and the home of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.

December 1988 - Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York is blown up over Scotland, killing 259 people on board and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie.

April 1999 - Libya hands over two suspects in the Pan Am bombing. They stand trial in the Netherlands.

December 2003 - Libya says it will abandon weapons of mass destruction programs and allow in international weapons inspectors.

March 2004 - British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Khadafy in Libya.

June 2004 - The US resumes diplomatic ties with Libya.

July 24, 2007 - Libya frees Bulgarian medics.

Source: China Daily/agencies

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