France’s Sarkozy meets Qadhafi

French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to boost relations with Libya as he met with the country’s leader Muammar Qadhafi on Wednesday as a reward for the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor.Libya is hoping for increased cooperation with Europe and the United States after it freed the six medical workers, who had been held for more than eight years in the North African country on charges they infected children with AIDS.

Under a deal sealed by the medics’ return to Bulgaria on Tuesday, the European Union agreed to a package of aid for Libya and the prospect of increased trade ties. The Europeans also said they would encourage contributions to a Libyan fund set up to compensate families of the more than 400 children infected with the HIV virus.

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, said Wednesday his country might write off the $54 million debt owed to it by Libya — though he underlined that it was a humanitarian gesture that should not be seen as “paying ransom, or admitting [the medical workers’] guilt.”

Sarkozy’s visit to Libya had been conditional on the release of the medics, whose freedom he had made a foreign policy priority since taking office in May.

The EU has been negotiating with Tripoli for months, trying to find a resolution to the crisis.

French First lady Cecilia Sarkozy made two trips to Libya this month to push for the medics’ release, and on Tuesday scored the coup of flying them home to Bulgaria aboard a French presidential plane.

With President Sarkozi’s visit Wednesday, “we are renewing, renovating our relations with Libya and restarting diplomatic relations”, his spokesman, David Martinon, told France-2 television on Wednesday.

In front of the cameras, Sarkozy and Qadhafi shook hands and listened to the French and Libyan national anthems, and Sarkozy was presented with flowers by a boy in traditional Libyan dress. Talks and the leaders’ dinner were closed to the press.

During the meetings, Sarkozy was expected to press for closer economic ties with Libya, which has important oil reserves.

Nuclear cooperation would not be on the table, Martinon said. The leaders are also expected to discuss cooperation in fighting terrorism and illegal immigration.

Libyan courts twice sentenced the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor to death on charges of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV.

The medics denied infecting the children and said their confessions were extracted under torture. During their trials, international experts testified that the infections were caused by unclean conditions at the Benghazi hospitals where they were treated.

Before their release, Libya commuted the medics’ sentences to life imprisonment, and Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov pardoned the six upon arrival in the capital, Sofia.

That brought an angry denunciation on Wednesday from the Libyan organisation representing the children’s families.

“We deeply condemn and are deeply disappointed at the absurdity and disrespect shown by the Bulgarian presidential pardon,” the association said in a statement faxed to the Associated Press. It called on Interpol to have police arrest the medics again in Bulgaria, “so that they can spend the rest of their sentences in prison.” But the association avoided any mention of Qadhafi’s decision to allow the medics to return home to Bulgaria.

Libya has been attempting for years to end its status as a pariah as it seeks international help renovate its long-decrepit economy. Libyan officials argued that with the release of the medics, the country’s slate with the outside world is clean.

In 2003, it accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, and agreed to pay restitution to the victims.

Qadhafi also announced he was dismantling his nuclear weapons programme, bringing a major breakthrough in US-Libyan ties. The steps brought a lifting of US and European sanctions on Libya.

Since then, international investment has increased in Libya’s oil sector — its only considerable industry, providing most of its gross domestic product of nearly $75 billion.

Sarkozy’s trip follows a visit in May by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also worked towards the medics’ release. While there, Blair welcomed improved relations between Britain and Libya, and oil companies from both countries signed a major deal.

In July, US President George W. Bush took a step in restoring normal diplomatic relations by nominating an ambassador to Tripoli, where the US reopened its embassy in May 2006. For years, Qadhafi was best known for his devotion to armed struggle against the United States.

But Libya’s failure so far to pay the last portion of the $270 million it promised to families of the Lockerbie victims could hold up a greater warming with the US. Some US senators are moving to block upgrading of the embassy until the last of the reparations are paid.

While the EU appears ready to increase ties to some extent with Libya after the medics’ release, an even closer relationship depends on political reforms in Libya that many doubt Qadhafi is ready to carry out.

EU officials have tried, without success, to get Libya to sign up to an EU aid and trade pact it has with North African and Middle Eastern nations. But to do so, Libya must implement democratic reforms and respect human rights. Sarkozy visited Libya in 2006 as interior minister but the jailed medics were an obstacle to normalising relations.

“Of course they are going to get some contracts regarding the airport, regarding high tech, wherever the French are good,” said Libya expert Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer.

“Conversely, if Sarkozy hadn’t done what he has done it would have taken them a long time to find any space in Libya.” France may also be looking to get into the Libyan arms market with a sale of Dassault Aviation’s Rafale jet fighter, promote its banks and there is speculation about a sale of civil nuclear technology.

Libya has approached France’s Areva about nuclear energy and earlier this month it selected BNP Paribas as a partner for Sahara Bank in the first partial privatisation.

“The three Maghreb countries and Libya are countries where French banks have got cards to play and they are playing them very well,” said Lagarde.

Libya and France have also been strategic rivals for influence in west and central Africa for almost four decades but they may now have a chance to work together.

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