Page last updated at 15:11 GMT, Tuesday, 24 July 2007 16:11 UK

Bulgarian joy at medics' return

By Virginia Savova
BBC News, Sofia

A Bulgarian nurse is greeted by a relative upon arrival at Sofia airport
The Bulgarian president welcomed the medics home
This is the day that Bulgaria has been awaiting for more than eight years - the day the six Bulgarian medics sentenced to death in Libya touched native soil.

"Welcome home!" and "Liberated!" said captions on the screens of the Bulgarian TV channel which broadcast live the arrival of the five nurses and a doctor.

After 2,755 days in prison, the ordeal was finally over for Valia Cherveniashka, Snezhana Dimitrova, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropoulo, Kristiana Valcheva and Palestinian-born doctor Ashraf Alhajouj.

"The medics are back in Bulgaria," announced radio stations.

Woken at dawn

"There are two major events for Bulgaria this year - the country's entry into the EU and the medics' return," said state-run Bulgarian national TV.

"This is the happy news we wanted to hear," said a news anchor on the privately-owned Nova TV.

Long before dawn, the medics' relatives gathered excitedly at the airport in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The Bulgarian medics are greeted by relatives at Sofia airport
The Bulgarian people have fully supported the medics

"I can't believe this is happening," said a smiling Marian Georgiev, son of Dr Zdravko Georgiev, who is the husband and former co-defendant of Ms Valcheva.

The families were the first to embrace their loved ones, seconds after they stepped off a French government plane.

Bulgarian government officials loudly applauded EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who both accompanied the medics home.

They received the news of their pardons from Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

The liberation of the medics is an example of the power of the EU
Velislava Dureva
Bulgarian journalist

"I am happy I lived long enough to return," said Ms Nenova.

"We were woken up at 0400 (0300 GMT) and at 0545 we left the gates of Djudeida prison," explained ecstatic nurse Ms Valcheva.

"Then we got on the plane. I didn't look outside the window. I know I am free, but I still can't believe it," she added.

'You're not alone'

Speaking in Bulgarian, Dr Alhajouj, who was granted citizenship in Bulgaria last month, said: "Thanks very much, thank you all."

Throughout their time in prison the sentenced medics have had the unwavering support of the Bulgarian people.

Calls for their liberation gathered momentum at the end of 2006, when a Bulgarian newspaper, a television and radio station launched a nationwide campaign under the slogan: "You are not alone".

Jailed Bulgarian medics
The imprisonment of the medics caused an international outcry

A huge poster with the message "We are waiting for you" was placed by campaigners at Sofia airport days ago.

On a sunny July morning, joyful crowds gathered outside the airport and waved at the medics.

"Congratulations Bulgarians! I am so happy and proud the medics came back," said a listener on Darik radio.

"Vive la France, who helped us liberate the medics," wrote a reader of the news website

What next?

"The liberation of the medics is an example of the power of the EU", Bulgarian journalist Velislava Dureva said in a radio interview.

Initially the medics will stay with their families at Boyana Residence, the largest governmental hotel complex in the country.

They will also undergo medical checks and be offered psychological help after their ordeal.

The Bulgarian government will meet on Wednesday and take practical steps to help the medics return to normal life.

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