Bush urges release of Bulgarian nurses in Libya

SOFIA (Reuters) — President George W. Bush said on Monday it was a high priority for the United States to win the release of five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya for infecting children with HIV.Wrapping up his eight-day European tour in Sofia, Bush also called for an exchange of information with Russia on the planned US missile defence shield in eastern Europe and said he regretted the collapse of an immigration bill back home.

“We strongly support the release of the Bulgarian nurses in Libya,” Bush told a news conference. “It’s a high priority for our country,” he added. “Our hearts also go out to the children that have been infected by HIV and AIDS.” The five nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted in December of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV in a highly politicised trial that has hampered attempts by OPEC member Libya to restore full relations with the West. In Tripoli, EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said she saw “a window of opportunity” for the release of the six medics, in jail since 1999. They say they are innocent and were tortured to make them confess.

 Bush tried to allay concerns in Bulgaria, a NATO member and US ally, about planned missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. The shield would not cover the Balkan country and has created tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I know this creates some concerns around Europe, this missile shield, because of Russian objections,” Bush said. Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said the Bulgarians should not have to choose between friendship with the United States and Russia.

“The same way I am friends with George and Vladimir, we could keep good relations with both … without losing our strategic priorities,” he said.

Putin turned the tables on Washington at the Group of Eight summit in Germany last week by proposing the United States drop the plan for bases in central Europe and instead use data from a Russian-operated radar in Azerbaijan.

Bush said he had called for US and Russian experts to analyse each other’s proposals and he thought collaboration and sharing information “will be beneficial”. Bush and Putin will meet next month at the US president’s family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Bush returns to the United States later on Monday to face difficulties on key domestic issues such as the collapse of legislation to overhaul immigration and Senate Democrats considering a no-confidence vote on his top law enforcement official, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

A bipartisan immigration compromise unravelled in the Senate last week in the face of opposition from the both ends of the political spectrum, including Bush’s fellow Republicans.

“I was disappointed that the bill was temporarily derailed,” Bush said in Sofia.

“We made two steps forward on immigration, we took a step back, and now I’m going to work with those who are focused on getting an immigration bill done and start taking some steps forward again,” he said. “I believe we can get it done.” Bush insisted Gonzales would stay in his administration regardless of the planned no-confidence vote. Gonzales, a longtime friend of Bush, has drawn sharp criticism for the handling of the firing of nine US prosecutors last year.

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