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Medics arrive
home in Bulgaria after eight years in Libyan prison

Medics arrive
home in Bulgaria after eight years in Libyan prison

Nurses

Six medical workers sentenced to life in prison in Libya after they were accused of infecting children with HIV came home to Bulgaria on Tuesday and were greeted with tears and hugs--and a presidential pardon that allowed them to walk free after 8 1/2 years behind bars. The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were flown from Tripoli to a jubilant welcome in Sofia.

Six medical workers sentenced to life in prison in Libya after they were accused of infecting children with HIV came home to Bulgaria on Tuesday and were greeted with tears and hugs--and a presidential pardon that allowed them to walk free after 8 1/2 years behind bars.

The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were flown from Tripoli to the jubilant welcome in Sofia on board a plane with French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the European Union's commissioner for foreign affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

E.U. officials said the bloc would move to improve trade and political ties with Libya after the release.

Libya had accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. Fifty of the children died. The medics, jailed since 1999, deny infecting the children and say their confessions were extracted under torture.

The six originally had been sentenced to death, but that was later commuted to life in prison. Last week the Libyan government agreed to a Bulgarian request to allow the six to serve the rest of their sentence at home.

''Led by the firm conviction in the innocence of the Bulgarian citizens sentenced in Libya and fulfilling his constitutional rights, the president signed a decree for pardon and releases them of their sentences,'' Bulgarian foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin said.

The six came down the steps from the airplane and were welcomed on the tarmac by family members who hugged them, one lifting the Palestinian doctor, Ashraf al-Hazouz, off the ground. Bulgaria granted him citizenship last month.

''I waited so long for this moment,'' nurse Snezhana Dimitrova said before falling into the arms of her loved ones.

Kristiana Valcheva, one of the released nurses, told reporters that throughout their time in prison, they had kept alive the hope of freedom.

''We were afraid even to say aloud what we dreamed about,'' Valcheva said with tears in her eyes.

''Now I still can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil. We were told the news at 4 o'clock in the morning and we left the jail at quarter to 6 to board the plane,'' she said. ''Now I will try to get my previous life back.''

From the airport, the medics were whisked to a government residence in the capital, where they will spend the next few days with their relatives and away from the intense media coverage of their release.

Along with the release, Libya and the European Union agreed to develop a ''full partnership,'' with the Europeans promising a package of aid to develop Libyan hospitals and other infrastructure, Libyan foreign minister Abdul-Rahman Shalqam said.

Shalqam, who did not reveal how much aid the E.U. would provide, also said the Bulgarian president had the right to pardon the medics.

''According to agreements between the two sides, it is the right of any country after handing over the convicts to either implement the verdict or to pardon them. It is the right of the Bulgarian president to issue this pardon,'' Shalqam told reporters in Tripoli.

Under the agreement signed with Ferrero-Waldner, the E.U. promised to provide ''lifelong treatment'' to the infected children as well as aid to ''improve the Benghazi Hospital'' where the children were infected, Shalqam said.

The E.U. also committed to ''provide other aid for education, historical antiquities, as well as support for security on Libya's northern and southern borders to combat illegal immigration,'' Shalqam said.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy said, however, that neither the E.U. nor France paid money to Libya for the release. He said Qatar mediated the release and hinted that the country may have had a broader role in resolving the crisis.

He also announced that he and French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner would visit Libya Wednesday in a bid to ''help Libya rejoin the international community.''

The French presidential palace said earlier that the deal included measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS in Libya. It did not provide further details.

In Brussels, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said the E.U. would move to improve trade and political ties with Libya after the release.

''We hope to go on further [on] normalizing our relations with Libya. Our relations with Libya were to a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue,'' Barroso told reporters.

He said the 27-nation bloc could move to include Libya in regional trade and aid ties with other Mediterranean countries.

The five Bulgarian nurses traveled to Libya nearly a decade ago, attracted by promises of higher-paying jobs. They were sent through a Bulgarian recruitment agency to al-Fath Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. The nurses were arrested the year after their arrival.

Some 60,000 Bulgarians were employed in the country in the 1980s, according to Libyan officials, before the U.N. imposed sanctions in 1993 and the links between the two nations weakened. (Veselin Toshkov, AP)

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