The medics were greeted by tearful relatives and well-wishers
Six Bulgarian medics who were serving life sentences in Libya have arrived in Bulgaria following their release, ending their eight-year incarceration. They were immediately pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.
The five nurses and a Palestinian-born doctor were convicted of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV – charges they have always denied.
An EU official told the BBC the release had been made possible by a deal struck in Tripoli on improving Libya-EU ties.
It comes after years of efforts by the European Commission, with the EU’s external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, making numerous trips to Libya, meeting the prisoners and working to improve the conditions for hundreds of children with HIV/Aids.
The dramatic case with the sentenced innocent Bulgarian citizens is at its end. We are still sympathetic with the other tragedy – the one of the infected Libyan children and their families
Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov
Ms Ferrero-Waldner and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, accompanied the Bulgarians home.
On their arrival aboard a French government plane at Sofia airport the medics were greeted on the tarmac by tearful relatives and well-wishers.
Mrs Ferrero-Waldner said she was “filled with joy” and described their release as “a humanitarian decision” and “the right decision”.
She told the BBC it marked “a new page in the history of relations between the EU and Libya”.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would make a “political visit” to Libya on Wednesday to help the country “rejoin the international community”.
Earlier, Mr Sarkozy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso welcomed the agreement, paying tribute to Ms Ferrero-Waldner, and the mediation of the emir of Qatar.
According to EU officials the key to the agreement has been a memorandum signed in Tripoli by Ms Ferrero-Waldner, which would lead to the full normalisation of EU relations with Libya.
The deal follows years of efforts by Ms Ferrero-Waldner
The BBC’s Oana Lungescu says it includes a pledge to open the European market to Libyan farm and fishery produce, technical assistance for the restoration of archaeological monuments and EU grants for Libyan students.
It also included measures to improve the medical care of the children infected with HIV/Aids in Libya, the French presidential palace said.
Libya said it had ordered the release of the medical workers after it was satisfied that the conditions for extradition had been met.
“The matter has been settled. We received guarantees for the normalisation of relations with European countries and for a partnership agreement with the EU,” a Libyan official told the AFP news agency.
Last week, the six had death sentences commuted to life in prison by Libya’s top legal body.
The High Judicial Council ruling came after the families of the 438 children agreed a compensation deal reportedly worth $1m (£500,000) per child.
Bulgaria had officially asked Libya to repatriate the medics so they could serve out their sentences in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria’s President Parvanov said he was satisfied with their release.
“The dramatic case with the sentenced innocent Bulgarian citizens is at its end. We are still sympathetic with the other tragedy – the one of the infected Libyan children and their families,” he said.
The Palestinian doctor was granted Bulgarian citizenship last month to allow him to benefit from any transfer deal.
The medics were convicted of deliberately injecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood. Fifty-six children have since died.
The six, who have been in prison since 1999, say they were tortured to confess.
Foreign experts say the infections started before the medics arrived at the hospital, and are more likely to have been a result of poor hygiene.
Bulgaria, its allies in the European Union, and the United States say Libya has used the case to deflect criticism from its run-down health service.