Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The United States and the European Union are in the final stages of negotiating a deal with Libya to free five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for infecting children with HIV, U.S. and European officials said yesterday.

The agreement, which is seen as a key to ending Tripoli’s decades-long international isolation, would lead to legislation scrapping the death penalty and would include foreign “humanitarian assistance” for the North African country, the officials said.

“The United States, the EU and Bulgaria have been working together with Libya to come up with the best resolution to this tragedy,” said the Bulgarian ambassador to Washington, Elena Poptodorova.

A senior State Department official said the United States has been “engaged” with the Libyan government on the issue of capital punishment. A new law ending the practice would provide Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s government with a face-saving way out of the affair.

The nurses, as well as a Palestinian doctor, were convicted last year of conspiring to infect more than 400 children with HIV, which causes AIDS, at a hospital in the city of Benghazi in the late 1990s.

At least 40 have died, causing a huge public outcry and mass demonstrations in Libya demanding the nurses’ executions.

Libya viewed the incident as an international plot involving the CIA and Israel’s foreign intelligence agency Mossad.

The accused insist they are innocent and their confessions were the result of torture.

Several respected international medical specialists have challenged Tripoli’s claims, saying the infections most likely were caused by unsanitary conditions in the hospital.

President Bush said after a meeting with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov at the White House two weeks ago that there was no evidence the nurses were guilty and demanded their immediate release.

The senior State Department official said Washington will not fully normalize relations with Libya, which agreed to give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction nearly two years ago, until the nurses are free.

Libya’s supreme court is due to rule Nov. 15 on an appeal by the medical team, and Mrs. Poptodorova said the negotiators hope to hammer out a deal before then.

She said the Bulgarian government, while sympathizing with the infant victims and their families, has rejected as “senseless and unacceptable” demands from Tripoli that Sofia pay what some in Libya call “compensation” and others “blood money.”

Any payments, Bulgaria has said, would amount to an admission of guilt.

The ambassador insisted that any aid Libya might receive would be humanitarian assistance and not ransom.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack concurred, noting that Washington is “coordinating closely” with the Bulgarians and the European Union, as well as the Libyans.

“We are in a position to provide diplomatic support in this effort, and I think the EU is really on the lead in terms of any potential humanitarian package,” he said.

A report by the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat yesterday quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying Tripoli was likely to annul capital punishment soon to pave the way for the nurses’ release.

A senior Libyan official denied the report, telling Reuters news agency, “There is no legislation or draft legislation to scrap the death penalty and there is no plan to do that any time soon.”

But then he added: “The debate in Libya about the death penalty and other legal issues has nothing to do with the nurses and their sentences.”

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