Rice honored in Bulgaria for helping free medics

Rice honored in Bulgaria for helping free medics

Posted: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:39 pm
By: AP

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accepted Bulgaria’s highest honor today for helping secure the release of six medics in Libya. Her attention then shifted to Georgia, paying a visit to the former Soviet republic that could further annoy Russia. “I’m glad and pleased to have played a role,” she said after the ceremony, the silver and white medallion draped around her neck on a thick white ribbon. “It was indeed a terrible ordeal but one I’m glad has ended.” The top U.S. diplomat had taken less of a public role than did several other international figures in the case. But Libya agreed to free the medics in part to improve its relationship with the United States. At the U.S. Embassy, Rice met with Dr. Ashraf al-Hazouz, 38, and one of the nurses, Snezhana Dimitrova, 55. “I’m very happy to be able to shake your hand after all you’ve been through,” Rice told Dimitrova, who had gone to Libya in 1998 to work in a pediatric hospital. Al-Hazouz said he had requested the meeting to thank the U.S. and to call attention to the group’s demand for Libya to pay restitution and clear the medics’ names. Rice had encouraged Libya to release the medics, saying it was time they go back to their families. But she avoided strong public criticism of Libya. Bulgaria, home to five of the medics, also awarded the state medal to others involved in the release. They included former French first lady Cecelia Sarkozy, who declined an invitation to accept it in person. The five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were accused of infecting Libyan children with AIDS. The U.S. and others said the charges were suspect at best. Arrested in 1999, the nurses and doctor twice were sentenced to death despite testimony from AIDS experts that the children — 50 of whom died — were infected by unhygienic conditions at the hospital. The medics were released into Bulgarian custody last July after Libya and the European Union struck a deal for millions of dollars in aid to Libya. Soon afterward a major deal was announced between European arms makers and Libya, and Libya is negotiating an end to years of legal fights in the U.S. over its alleged support of terrorism. Bulgaria, a former Warsaw Pact country that joined NATO in 2004, has supported the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq by sending troops to the multinational coalition forces. In 2006, it signed a 10-year deal allowing U.S. troops to be deployed in Bulgarian military facilities. The deal is seen as part of a broader U.S. military strategy to shift European-based troops further east to small, flexible bases closer to potential trouble spots in the Middle East. It will see up to 2,500 U.S. troops deployed in Bulgaria. Bulgarian officials have said the deal will help improve the armed forces, boost the economy and enhance security of their country. Later today, Rice planned to visit Georgia, now in a deadly standoff with Russia over a breakaway region called Abkhazia. The visit probably will further tweak Russia. Moscow responded angrily to Rice’s signing on Tuesday of a deal allowing the U.S. to base a missile defense shield on Czech territory. Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, told reporters today at the Group of Eight summit in Japan that the U.S. system “deeply distresses” Moscow and that Washington was engaging in “halfhearted negotiations that have come to nothing.” The Bush administration’s goal is to build a missile defense base near Prague as part of a U.S. global missile defense system aimed at countering possible threats from countries such as Iran. The deal is unpopular among Czechs; Russia sees the system as a potential threat and a provocation in its old sphere of influence. Rice said Russia has no cause for worry and called Moscow’s threat of military action “predictable, if disappointing.” Speaking after a meeting with her Bulgarian counterpart, Rice said her visit to Georgia, whose bid for NATO membership Russia opposes, is a matter between the U.S. and an ally. “I’m going to visit a friend, and I don’t expect much comment on the United States going to visit a friend,” Rice said. The proposed missile defense system calls for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Moscow has threatened to aim its own missiles at any eventual base in Poland or the Czech Republic. Shortly after the treaty was signed, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow would be forced to initiate a military response if the deal goes ahead. Associated Press writer Veselin Toshkov in Sofia contributed to this report. Published in The Messenger 7.9.08

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