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Bulgaria could write off Libya's debt

Bulgaria may write off Libya's foreign debt to the country as part of humanitarian aid measures, the Bulgarian prime minister said Wednesday.

Canceling the US$54 million (EUR39 million) debt would not be payback for Tripoli's release Tuesday of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said.

It should not be viewed "as paying ransom, or admitting (the medical workers') guilt, but rather as a humanitarian gesture," he said.

Until now, Bulgaria has vehemently rejected the idea of paying compensation to the families, or writing off some of Libya's debt, saying such a move would be seen as an admission of the guilt of the nurses, who spent more than eight years in jail over widely rejected accusations that they deliberately infecteed Libyan children with HIV.

European countries have promised millions of dollars to a fund for HIV-infected children in Libya.

"The fund, chaired by an EU representative, is aimed at helping the families of the Libyan HIV-infected children, by providing medical care, medical facilities and training of medical personnel," Stanishev said.

Libya's decision to allow the six to return to Bulgaria - nominally to serve out the rest of their life sentences - came after months of pressure from the United States and the EU, who made clear to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that resolving the issue was key to normalizing relations, a key Libyan goal.

Stanishev said that the return of the medics to Bulgaria shows the positive implications of EU membership for Bulgarian citizens.

"Without EU support we would have hardly achieved this result on our own," Stanishev said.

Behind Tuesday's dramatic release were secretive negotiations, with the French president's wife as a key protagonist.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin told journalists that the last 48 hours were the most dramatic in the release efforts.

"At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, just hours before their departure, Mrs. Cecilia Sarkozy threatened to break off the negotiations and leave Tripoli," Kalfin said, adding that this was the decisive moment in the medics' release.

Libya had accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV; 50 of the children died. The medics, jailed since 1999, were initially sentenced to death, but later had their sentence commuted to life imprisonment. They deny the charge and say their confessions were extracted under torture.

The medics received an emotional welcome by family members, government officials and hundreds of ordinary Bulgarians. They were immediately granted a presidential pardon.

The five nurses - all mothers - 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 Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi. They were arrested the year after their arrival.

Many Bulgarians went to the French Embassy in Sofia Wednesday to present flowers in a sign of gratitude for France's efforts to release the medics.

The city of Sofia also declared French president Nicolas Sarkozy, his wife Cecilia and the EU's external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner honorary citizens of the capital.

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