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Rice Disappointed, Concerned by Death Sentences in Libya

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she is disappointed and concerned by the death sentences handed down by a Libyan court against five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting Libyan children with the HIV/AIDS virus. Rice and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin, who held talks Tuesday, urged the early release of those accused. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Both Rice and her Bulgarian counterpart are expressing concern and disappointment over the decision of the Libyan court. But both are clearly holding out hope that the death sentences will not be carried out and that the six medical practitioners, who have been jailed since 1999, will eventually be released.

The six deny charges that they deliberately infected more than 400 children at a Libyan hospital in the late 1990's. They were found guilty in an initial trial in 2004 and sentenced to die, but the Libyan supreme court ordered a retrial, which has now ended with the same verdict and sentence.

In a talk with reporters as she began a meeting with Foreign Minister Kalfin, Secretary Rice expressed sympathy over the plight of the infected Libyan children, of whom about 50 have died of AIDS. But she repeated a long-standing U.S. call for the release of the Bulgarians and the Palestinian:

"We understand very much that there are children who have suffered and we are concerned for their suffering, and that of their families," said Ms. Rice. "But we also are concerned that these medics will be allowed to go home at the earlier possible date. These are people who deserve to go home, and we are very disappointed at the outcome of this verdict. And I want you to know, minister, that we will continue to work for their early return to Bulgaria."

Foreign Minister Kalfin, for his part, also stressed compassion for the children in the case, but reaffirmed his government's stand that the defendants are not guilty and should, at long last, be allowed to return home:

"There is all the reason to believe that they are innocent and they shouldn't be related to his tragedy," he said. "And we feel compassionate also, and wish all the sympathy with the tragedy of the children. So hopefully, we shall do our best to urge the Libyan authorities, including the judicial authorities, to go ahead and complete the whole procedure and to allow the nurses to come home to Bulgaria."

European governments and human rights organizations have also been critical of Libya's handling of the case. Some leading Western scientists say that negligence and poor hygiene at the Libyan hospital are responsible for the infections, and that the Palestinian and the Bulgarians were made scapegoats for the outbreak.

A study published by a panel of scientists in the British medical journal "Nature" earlier this month said the strain of the HIV/AIDS virus that infected the children has been present at the Benghazi hospital before the six practitioners arrived in 1998, and had probably been spread by improperly sterilized syringes and other equipment.

The case has slowed Libya's rapprochement with the United States and Western Europe, which began in 2003 when the government of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi scrapped its weapons of mass destruction programs and accepted responsibility for a 1988 bombing of an American jetliner.

The United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya earlier this year, but U.S. official visits to that country have been limited to the sub-ministerial level.