- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

The United States has complained to Libya that resolving the eight-year-old case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of infecting about 400 children with HIV is taking much longer than what Tripoli had led Washington to believe.

The informal complaint, which was made during Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte’s visit to Libya last week, was an expression of the Bush administration’s frustration that the issue has become an impediment to fully normalizing U.S.-Libya relations.

“It’s long past due for resolution,” Mr. Negroponte told reporters yesterday. “And the best I could do was to impress upon them the importance we attach to that question.”

Although U.S. officials have avoided confrontation with the Libyans over the medical personnel, whose release they have called for repeatedly, the State Department has put on hold plans to further improve relations with Libya after years of animosity.

“It’s taking much longer than they had previously told us to expect,” one senior U.S. official said, disclosing for the first time that the Libyans had given the U.S. an approximate, albeit vague, timeline.

The official declined to be more specific, saying only that the case should have been resolved by now. He did say that no formal promise was made and that the timeline was based on judicial procedures, rather than political decisions.

A senior European diplomat said any reference to a time period that the Libyans might have set should be viewed with skepticism. But the senior U.S. official, while agreeing with the European diplomat, said the United States has a good reason to go back to Libya and demand a speedy resolution.

Several State Department officials said that in expectation of a release, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has more than once tentatively planned to visit Tripoli, but those plans were shelved each time because the case kept dragging on.

Last week, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi refused to meet with Mr. Negroponte, who held talks instead with Foreign Minister Abd al-Rahman Shalgham.

Analysts said Col. Gadhafi was sending a signal that he would only receive Miss Rice.

In late 2003, after more than two decades marked by Libyan terrorist acts against American and other Western interests, Libya denounced terrorism and agreed to scrap its missile and weapons of mass destruction programs.

It has also paid some compensation to families of those killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Last year, the United States took Libya off its black list of state sponsors of terrorism and reopened its embassy in Tripoli. However, the mission is headed by a charge d’affaires, and the appointment of an ambassador would be considered full normalization of relations.

The nurses and Dr. Ashraf Ahmad Juma, who worked in a hospital in the northern city of Benghazi, have been in jail since 1999. They insist they are innocent, and some of the world’s leading experts, including a member of the team that discovered the AIDS virus, have said the infections were caused by poor hygiene in the hospital and started before the Bulgarians’ arrival.

The nurses and doctor were sentenced to death by a firing squad in 2004 and are appealing the penalty. They are also being sued for slander by police officers whom the nurses accused of torturing them to secure confessions.

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