Their release -- after eight years in captivity -- came after a deal was struck with Libya on medical aid and improved ties with the European Union.
The medics, sentenced first to death, and then to life in prison in Libya for infecting children with the HIV virus, arrived in Sofia on board a French government plane. They were accompanied by French First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the EU's Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who had traveled to Tripoli to negotiate the medics' release.
The five nurses -- Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, and Snezhana Dimitrova -- and Palestinian doctor Ashraf al-Hazouz were welcomed on the tarmac by family members.
'Living For This Moment'
Tripoli accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, at a hospital in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi. The medics denied infecting the children and said their confessions were extracted under torture.
"I've been living for this moment, and it finally came," nurse Snezhana Dimitrova said today upon arrival in Sofia. "I had never, ever [accepted] the death sentence. It had never been my sentence. Now I'm happy."
Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called the medics’ ordeal a nightmare.
"The most important thing for our medics now is that they are back home, safe and sound," he said. "All that has happened to them during the past eight years was a nightmare, but now it is over."
President Georgi Parvanov subsequently signed a decree pardoning the five nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who was granted Bulgarian citizenship in June.
"The most important thing for our medics now is that they are back home, safe and sound. All that has happened to them during the past eight years was a nightmare, but now it is over." -- Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev
In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hailed the return and pardon of the medics as a success for the European Union.
"This is for us in Europe a moment of relief, emotion, of happiness," Barroso said. "I want to send a message of solidarity and friendship to the Bulgarian people, to the citizens of our common European Union with whom we are today especially united in happiness."
Normalization Of Ties
Barroso also said the positive conclusion of the case made possible a full normalization of Libya’s relations with the European Union.
"I assured [Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi] of our wish to further normalize the relations between the European Union and Libya," Barroso said. "And I told him that if this matter was settled, we would do our best to further normalize these relations because we believe it is in the interest of Libya and, of course, in the interest of Europe. And it is also in the general interest of better relations between Europe and the Arab and Islamic world."
Barroso said the deal for the medics' release included measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS in Libya.
In Tripoli, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalgham said the EU and Libya have agreed to form a "full partnership" with a package of aid after the medics' release.
The conclusion of the case comes after weeks of intensive diplomatic negotiations between Libya and the EU.
Details remain unclear of the deal closed in Tripoli by Cecilia Sarkozy and the EU's Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he will visit Libya on July 25 to help the country "rejoin the international community.”
However, Sarkozy stressed that neither France nor the European Union paid any money to Libya as part of the deal that saw the medics' release.
Sarkozy’s statement contradicts those made by Libyan officials one week ago, however.
A lawyer for the families of hundreds of HIV-positive children in Libya said on July 17 that they had received compensation worth $460 million. Lawyer Idriss Lagha numbered the families receiving compensation at 460, with each family getting $1 million.
Lagha said the money came from the Benghazi International Fund, a nonprofit, nongovernmental body established in January 2006 to help develop the hospital's infrastructure. The fund is financed by the European Union, the United States, Bulgaria, Libya, and Britain.
The families subsequently signed a declaration renouncing the medics' death sentences. Libya’s top judicial body, the High Judicial Council, then commuted the death sentences into life in prison.
On July 19, Sofia made an official request for Tripoli to repatriate the medics so that their sentences could be served in Bulgaria.
The pardons for the six medics reinforces the position of Bulgaria and its allies that Libya had used the case to deflect criticism away from its rundown health service.
International experts say the infections, which resulted in the deaths of 56 children, started before the medics arrived at Benghazi, and are more likely to have been the result of poor hygiene.