Following long negotiations, six foreign medics held in Libya on charges of infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus have been released, after the European Union agreed it would work on normalization of relations with the African country. Stefan Bos reports they received a warm welcome in Bulgaria.
Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor received a hero's welcome as they landed at the airport in Sofia.
They arrived in Sofia from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on a French presidential plane. The environment was very different from the prison in Libya where they spend eight long years on charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus, as part of an experiment.
All have denied the charges, saying the children were infected because of unhygienic circumstances in the hospital, including the sharing of dirty needles. The nurses also said "confessions" cited by prosecutors as evidence were made under torture.
Last week, Libya bowed to international pressure and commuted the death sentences to terms of life imprisonment. Tuesday in Sofia, that seemed all forgotten, as relatives embraced them and handed out flowers, while Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov awaited the medics with a pardon, setting them free.
One of the nurses was overheard saying that she had been living for this moment and that she never accepted the death sentence.
The nurses were accompanied by French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Before the medics were released, Ferrero-Walder visited some of the 438 children infected with HIV in the hospital in the Libyan town of Benghazi.
As she visited the children, she promised the European Union would remain involved in providing medical aid to the children.
In Sofia, she told reporters that, although the infected children would not be forgotten, the release of the nurses is a highlight in her diplomatic career.
She thanked French first lady Sarkozy for her role in the final moments leading up to the release of the nurses and said "It's a wonderful moment" for the EU and Bulgaria. Ms. Ferrero-Waldner says the release will open a new page in the relationship between the government of Libya and the European Union.
The deal that allowed their release did not come cheap. Relatives of the 438 children received about $1 million each, through an EU-supported AIDS fund for medical treatment. The EU will also set up an international medical facility in Libya to help AIDS patients.
And, European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso admitted to reporters in Brussels the EU also was pressured to normalize relations by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"I have had a very long telephone conversation with Mr. Gadhafi, yesterday," he said. "I ensured him our wish to further normalize the relations between the European Union and Libya. And, I told him that, if this matter was settled, we would do our best to further normalize this relation, because we believe it is in the interest of Libya and it is of course in the interest of Europe and it is also in the general interest of better relations between Europe, [the] Arab and the Islamic world. And also [for] relations between Europe and Africa."
Critics have claimed the EU made too many concessions to Libya, which has been under international sanctions following the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over the Scottish town, Lockerbie, in which 270 people died.
However, European diplomats say that winning the release of the nurses and saving their lives was worth it and may eventually mark the beginning of better relations with Libya.