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Foreign Captives Released After Eight Years in Libyan Prison

July 24, 2007 at 5:07 PM EDT

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: Home at last, free at last, and whoops of joy as a French presidential jet delivered five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to the arms of their loved ones, after more than eight years in a Libyan jail for a crime they say they didn’t commit.

They said they’d been tortured and raped in Libyan custody. They were sentenced to death in front of a firing squad, accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. Over 50 of those children are now dead.

But after two days of talks shrouded in secrecy, France’s first lady, Cecilia Sarkozy, helped secure their release. And though the E.U. denies any money changed hands, it’s clear that this E.U. commissioner struck a deal: foreign medical aid for the infected children in exchange for the prisoners’ freedom. Libya, so long a pariah state, allowed in from the cold at last.

"A new chapter's opening"

BENITA FERRERO WALDNER, Commissioner, European Union (through translator): This is a good moment, because today a new chapter's opening in relations with Libya. And that's positive for all the European Union, which Bulgaria joined in these last few months.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In December, this Libyan judge said the medics should face a firing squad. They were found guilty of running an HIV trial which had gone wrong, though foreign experts testified that the children had fallen ill before the Bulgarians had arrived and that dirty needles were to blame. From behind their bars, the group said they'd been framed.

DR. ASHRAF ALHAJOUJ (through translator): Everything said in this trial is a lie and has no medical, logical or legal basis.

Compensating families

JONATHAN RUGMAN: "Death to the child killers," shouted relatives of the dead outside, seeking blood justice. Many are from the city of Benghazi, an Islamist trouble spot for the Gadhafi regime, enraged and shamed by the spread of AIDS to their children.

Gadhafi accused both Mossad and the CIA of backing the nurses in a plot to control Africa. He wanted compensation for the families, like the compensation the Pan Am Flight 103 families were receiving from Libya, money agreed long after the bombing over Lockerbie in 1988.

But by the time Tony Blair said goodbye to him last month, Colonel Gadhafi was a changed man, trying to open Libya up for business, including a vast exploration deal with B.P. Meanwhile, new E.U. member Bulgaria was hosting President Bush, who was poised to send America's first ambassador to Tripoli in over 30 years.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We will continue to make clear to Libya that the release of these nurses is a high priority for our country.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So while President and Mrs. Sarkozy stole the limelight at the finish line, today's release marks the end of a multinational marathon. And this remarkable story has already been optioned by Hollywood as a movie.

JIM LEHRER: The E.U. will pay for lifelong medical treatment for the infected Libyan children. Their families will also be compensated.