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Page last updated at 14:29 GMT, Tuesday, 24 July 2007 15:29 UK

HIV medics released to Bulgaria

Bulgarian medics arrive in the capital, Sofia
The medics were greeted by tearful relatives and well-wishers

Six Bulgarian medical workers who were imprisoned in Libya for deliberately infecting children with HIV have arrived in Bulgaria after being freed.

The five nurses and a Palestinian-born doctor, who served eight years of the life sentences they received, had always maintained they were innocent.

All six were pardoned on their arrival by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

The release was made possible by a deal struck in Tripoli on improving Libya-EU ties, following years of negotiations.

The EU's External Affairs Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, made many trips to Libya, meeting the prisoners and working to improve conditions for children infected with HIV/Aids.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, were also involved in the final negotiations.

Mr Sarkozy is now scheduled to visit Libya on Wednesday and meet the country's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, to discuss Tripoli's re-integration into the international community.

'We kept hoping'

On their arrival aboard a French government plane at Sofia airport, the medics were greeted on the tarmac by tearful relatives and well-wishers.

I lived for this moment - it's as if I had never been guilty of anything.
Snezhana Dimitrova
Freed Bulgarian nurse

One of the nurses, Snezhana Dimitrova, declared: "I lived for this moment.

"It's as if this had never been... as if I had never been guilty of anything. I am happy now."

Another nurse, Kristiana Valcheva, said the six were informed of their impending release shortly before dawn.

"They told us at four in the morning. They woke me up. At a quarter to six we passed through the big gate of the prison and we were taken to the VIP area of the airport and to the French plane."

Despite years in prison, Ms Valcheva said the group had always kept hoping they would be freed.

"You know that hope dies last. We always had hope, although we were quite sceptical and were afraid to say it," she said.

At least one other Bulgarian, Zdravko Georgiev, the husband of one of the nurses who was held under house arrest in Libya, also returned home with the group.

Compensation confusion

European politicians hailed the release of the medics. Ms Ferrero-Waldner said it marked "a new page in the history of relations between the EU and Libya".

Jailed Bulgarian medics

Mr Sarkozy and the EU denied making any financial payment to secure the medics' release.

However, the families of the 438 infected children reportedly agreed last week to a compensation deal worth $1m (500,000) per child, channelled through Gaddafi Foundation, a charity run by Seif al-Islam, the Libyan leader's son.

Libya's foreign minister said both the EU and France had contributed to the fund, AFP reported.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU could now begin to normalise trade and political ties with Libya.

The European market could now be opened to Libyan farm and fishery produce, and there could be co-operation in archaeology, education, and healthcare for the Libyan children infected with HIV.

Citizenship

President Parvanov said he was satisfied with the release of the medics.

EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner
The deal follows years of efforts by Ms Ferrero-Waldner
"The dramatic case with the sentenced innocent Bulgarian citizens is at its end. We are still sympathetic with the other tragedy - the one of the infected Libyan children and their families," he said.

The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Alhajouj, was granted Bulgarian citizenship last month to allow him to benefit from any transfer deal. He is now expected to travel to the Netherlands to visit his family.

The medics were convicted of deliberately injecting the 438 children with HIV-tainted blood. Fifty-six of the children have since died.

The six, who had been in prison since 1999, say they were tortured to confess.

Foreign experts say the infections started before the medics arrived at the hospital, and are more likely to have been a result of poor hygiene.

Bulgaria, its allies in the EU and the US say Libya has used the case to deflect criticism from its run-down health service.



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The medics arrive in Bulgaria





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