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10th Dec 2018

French diplomacy rekindles Bulgaria's pain over captive nurses

  • The Bulgarian nurses were eventually released from Libya in 2007 (Photo: EUobserver)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's push to recognise Libyan rebels has caused anger in Bulgaria, with Sofia alleging that key members of the Libyan National Transitional Council were closely linked to the torture of six Bulgarian nurses held captive in the north African country during the last decade.

"I explained [to EU leaders] that representatives of this council in Benghazi are the people who tortured the Bulgarian medics for eight years and that this cost us nearly $60 million," Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told journalists at a European Summit in Brussels on Friday (11 March).

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Accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV-contaminated blood, the Bulgarian nurses were eventually released in 2007. As part of the deal, Bulgaria waved $60 million in debt owed by Tripoli.

No formal investigation has ever been conducted, but last month Libya's former Justice Minister Mustafa Abudel-Jalil said the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was responsible for infecting the roughly 400 children.

Exactly which members of the transitional council Borisov was referring to remains unclear. The Bulgarian premier also likened the situation in Libya to the fall of Communism in his own country.

"You remember what happened in 1989-90, who took power in Bulgaria? The people from the [Communist] Politburo, the foreign minister and the military," he said.

Reports suggest Romanian President Traian Basescu also echoed doubts over the rebels' credentials during the EU leaders' discussion, causing an angry outburst from Sarkozy and leading German Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for calm.

Both Romania and Bulgaria are known to be unhappy with French opposition to them joining the Schengen visa-free travel zone at the current juncture.

Since violence erupted in Libya in February, EU countries have agonised over whether to recognise rebels groups, predominately situated in the east of the country. On Friday leaders said they would treat members of the temporary council as "political interlocutors".

France has gone further however, dispatching a diplomatic envoy to Benghazi on Thursday after French President Sarkozy met with two rebel representatives the same day.

Speaking to journalists after an extraordinary EU summit on the subject, Mr Sarkozy hit back at accusations his country was moving too fast.

"I don't think there is any country that has gone from dictatorship to perfect democracy. We can't say you've worked with Gaddafi therefore we won't talk to you. They are now risking their lives, they have shouldered their responsibilities."

Tensions over the kidnapped nurses are not new.

In 2007, former French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy flew to Libya to secure the release of the six nurses, but officials in Berlin and Brussels considered the move a PR stunt after weeks of careful negotiations. The event however was deemed a media coup for Nicolas Sarkozy

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