Libya sends HIV medics home after deal on aid

Six foreign medics convicted of infecting Libyan children with HIV arrived in Sofia on Tuesday after being freed by Libya under an accord with the European Union.

Their release after eight years in captivity ends what Libya’s critics called a human rights scandal and lifts a barrier to attempts by the long-isolated North African state to complete a process of normalising ties with the outside world.

A statement by the French presidency said the medics—who said they were innocent and had been tortured to confess—were being flown on a French jet to Sofia where they landed at around 6.50am GMT.

A Libyan close to the negotiations said the five Bulgarians and a Palestinian who recently took Bulgarian citizenship were freed under an agreement with the European Union (EU) on medical aid and political ties.

“There was agreement on equipping the hospital in Benghazi and treatment for the children ... All the political matters have been met,” the Libyan contacted by telephone from Algiers said.

The medics were accompanied by EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and France’s First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy, who had been in Tripoli to help their release.

The Libyan close to the negotiations said European countries had agreed to provide medical assistance for the children and to help upgrade a hospital in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the town where the infections first appeared in the 1990s.

The EU had also agreed to improve its ties with Libya and build what the Libyan called a partnership that would include free trade. Bulgaria is a new EU member.

The six are expected to be pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov later, officials said.

Following hectic diplomatic talks and payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to the families of 460 HIV victims, Libya last week commuted the death sentences against the six to life imprisonment.

That paved the way for the medics, who spent over eight years in Libyan jail to return home under a 1984 prisoner exchange agreement.

Tuesday’s transfer of the medics became possible after EU and French officials achieved a breakthrough in talks with Libya overnight, Bulgarian officials said.

Families of the nurses eagerly awaited them at Sofia airport’s government VIP arrival hall.

“It’s unbelievable.
They are coming home,” said Tsvetanka Siropoulu, sister-in-law of one of the nurses.

Aid and political ties

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.

The European Commission welcomed Libya’s “humanitarian” decision, as well as what it said was “the implementation of an improved framework to ensure the care dispensed to the children victim of Aids in Libya”.

A statement by the French presidency also thanked Qatar for what it said was its meditation.

Libya emerged from decades of isolation in 2003 when it scrapped a programme of prohibited weapons and returned to international mainstream politics.

The country has begun opening its big energy reserves to foreign oil firms and the United States said this month it was sending its first ambassador to Tripoli in 35 years. - Reuters

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