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Bulgaria requests EU help to free Libya nurses
  By Christopher Condon in Bucharest and Andrew Bounds in Brussels
Published: January 1 2007
Bulgarians are expecting an immediate dividend from membership of the European Union as their government launches a new push to free five nurses sentenced to death by a Libyan court last week.
The nurses' plight has become a cause celebre in the Balkan country, with some analysts seeing it as an early test of how seriously the country is regarded by its new peers in the EU.
Bulgaria, along with neighbouring Romania, celebrated its historic entry into the EU at the same time it rang in the New Year, midnight on Sunday.
But while the Balkan duo will be under considerable pressure to deliver on promises to continue crucial reforms, Sofia is demanding that Europe show its loyalty by helping to free the nurses.
Many Bulgarians believe Brussels has not yet put its full diplomatic weight behind the efforts.
The five nurses, along with a Palestinian doctor, were sentenced to death on December 19 for deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV in 1999.
The sentenced have maintained their innocence. Medical experts have testified that the children were infected with HIV before the six accused ever had contact with them, but Tripoli claims the children, 50 of whom have died, were injected with HIV in a botched attempt to find a cure for AIDS.
Bulgaria's media has staged a massive campaign to raise awareness of the case and demand a more aggressive stance from Brussels, including threats of sanctions against Libya.
The cause has been quickly embraced by Bulgaria's public. The vast majority of those joining in Sunday evening's outdoor celebrations in Sofia wore lapel ribbons signifying their support for the nurses.
During the festivities in Sofia's Batenberg square, Sergey Stanishev, Bulgaria's prime minister, received heavy and sustained applause when he raised the issue. "We will go on fighting for the release of the nurses and we will then celebrate together with them," he said.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, says she is doing all she can. She visited the victims families in 2005 and has helped set up a charitable fund to care for them in an attempt to win over Libyan public opinion.
Last week she wrote to Abdelati al-Ebaidi, Tripoli's senior official for European affairs, saying she hoped the government would reconsider.
The EU has also invested millions in the local hospital in Benghazi where the infections allegedly occured.
"We have done this on humanitarian grounds, but also in full knowledge that Bulgaria would be joining the EU. The actual fact of admission does not make a big difference," her spokeswoman said.
Muammar Gadaffi, Libya's leader, has asked for 10m in compensation for each of the children's families, apparently in return for the sentences to be commuted. Bulgaria has rejected the offer, saying it would constitute an admission of guilt.
Sanctions are unlikely as the west is seeking to bring the mercurial dictator in from the cold.
There were celebrations across Slovenia on Monday as the former Yugoslav republic adopted the euro.
The tiny but prosperous country became the eurozone's 13th member, in its first expansion since the currency was introduced in 2002.
The move formally completes Slovenia's transition from planned economy to a full member of Europe's competitive single market.
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