‘Dispute holding up Libyan AIDS deal’

A dispute over compensation is holding up a deal in the case of six foreign medics sentenced to death in Libya for infecting children with the AIDS virus, the children’s families said Friday.“Despite difficult negotiations, a compromise was found on the different points of the deal, including the children’s care and treatment, but there is still one sticking point concerning the compensation,” they said in a statement.Bulgaria’s foreign minister confirmed that a deal was still far from being reached to resolve the case of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on death row here for a crime they say they did not commit.

“There’s been dynamism [in negotiations with the families] in the past few weeks but the case is still far from a solution,” Ivailo Kalfin told Bulgarian national radio.

“I cannot say when a deal will be agreed or announced as talks are still under way.” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has played down reports of an imminent deal in the case.

The Kadjafi Foundation, a charity headed by the son of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi that has been involved in negotiations, called on the EU to hold to its “promises and commitments”.

A statement sent to AFP “stressed the need for German support for putting to work the [European] promises and commitments” during Germany’s presidency of the EU which ends this month.

It added that the pledges were mentioned in documents signed on June 10 during a visit by Ferrero-Waldner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Foundation director Salah Abdessalem said the pledges focused on support for a fund to help victims’ families, modernisation of an immunology centre at Benghazi  where the children were infected, and Libya’s association with the Euro-Mediterranean partnership with priority on European projects in the north African country.

Abdessalem said he saw hope in the families’ statement and their acceptance of a deal in principle “shows that we are close to the end of the tunnel”. Families’ spokesman Idriss Lagha also voiced optimism, saying that “if a compromise is reached on the last point [of compensation] the agreement will be considered a renunciation by the families of the death sentence handed down to the medics”. Libyan sources had said a simultaneous announcement could be made on Friday in Tripoli and Brussels, where EU leaders are gathered for a summit meeting.

The nurses and Palestinian doctor, who recently obtained Bulgarian citizenship, were arrested in 1999 accused of infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi.

They were sentenced to death in May 2004. Fifty six of the children have died.

The six have denied the charges and foreign health experts have said poor hygiene was probably the cause of the epidemic in Libya’s second city.

If there was a deal, their death sentences could be commuted and any new sentence served in Bulgaria, as Libya and Bulgaria have an extradition agreement.

The EU has expressed its opposition to any deal it sees as blackmail or compensation to the families.

Instead it has supported “a special assistance fund” which will serve, among other elements, to ensure free medical treatment of the sick.

A Libyan official told AFP that Tripoli had persuaded “certain European countries including Bulgaria” to convert Libya’s debts into contributions into a medical fund which would ensure free treatment of the sick.

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