The five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya in a controversial HIV infection case must be freed and allowed to return home as quickly as possible, US President George W. Bush said on Monday (June 11th) in Sofia, the final stop on his eight-day European tour.“We strongly support the release of the Bulgarian nurses in Libya,” he told reporters after talks with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. “It’s a high priority for our country.”
The two presidents also voiced their countries’ sympathies for the more than 400 children who contracted HIV at a Benghazi hospital where the nurses worked, together with a Palestinian doctor who was also charged in the case. They pledged continued support for global efforts aimed at ensuring that they are provided treatment.
International experts have argued that the evidence exonerates the medics, and that the outbreak most likely stemmed from poor hygiene conditions at the hospital. Such evidence, however, was barred at their trial.
Bush, who arrived on his first official visit to Bulgaria on Sunday evening, also hailed Bulgaria’s transition to a free market economy, its entry into the EU and NATO, and its contributions to the global fight against terrorism. He thanked Bulgaria, which is considered one of the strongest allies of the United States in the Balkans, for contributing troops to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Describing Bulgaria’s current ties with the United States as being at their best in more than a century, Parvanov voiced hope that Washington would continue to support his country’s efforts for a speedier modernisation of its armed forces to allow it to better fulfill its commitments as a NATO member.
He and Bush met after an official welcoming ceremony and wreath laying at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in downtown Sofia, where the US president also greeted Bulgarian soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He shook hands with a crowd of people that had gathered at the square to welcome him and the First Lady.
Among the issues the two presidents discussed were ways of boosting bilateral military and economic co-operation.
“I believe we should make an effort to improve the structure of trade and investment,” Parvanov said. “And I did lay downâ€¦ the possibility for a more significant involvement of American businesses in the major energy projects, both in Bulgaria and the Balkans — in the infrastructure in the defence industry.”
The reforms Bulgaria is undertaking towards that end should aim to eradicate corruption in the country, Bush said. Investors seek a good business climate and less government intervention, he added.
Kosovo was another key item on the agenda. The time has come, Bush told reporters, to move ahead with UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s plan for the province’s future.
“America believes that Kosovo ought to be independent, and I sought the president’s advice,” he said. “One of the things [Parvanov] made clear is something I agree with, and that is as we seek independence for Kosovo, we’ve also got to make it clear to Serbia that there’s a way forward, maybe in NATO, maybe in the EU, and definitely in better relations with the United States.”
The US visa regime for Bulgarians was also among the topics discussed Monday, with Bush noting his determination to continue working with Congress on an overhaul of his country’s “outdated” visa system.
His delegation includes National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte and Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried. The group met with Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev and then hosted a lunch at the National Museum of History in Sofia.