SOFIA, Bulgaria – Weeping relatives embraced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, imprisoned for life in Libya for infecting children with HIV, after the six medics flew home Tuesday to cheering crowds and a presidential pardon.
"I waited so long for this moment," nurse Snezhana Dimitrova said as she fell into the arms of emotional relatives.
The six were flown from Tripoli to Sofia on board a plane with French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy and the EU's commissioner for foreign affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Friends and relatives greeted them as they came down the steps of the airplane at Sofia airport, with one lifting the Palestinian doctor off the ground.
From the airport, the medics were whisked to a government residence in the capital, where they will spend the next few days with their relatives, away from the intense media coverage of their release.
Libya had accused the six of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. The medics, jailed since 1999, denied the charges. During their eight years in custody, the nurses, who are now between the ages of 41 and 54, say they endured torture and rape — abuses under which they made confessions.
The six had originally been sentenced to death, but that was later commuted to life in prison. Last week, Tripoli agreed to a Bulgarian request to allow the six to serve the rest of their sentence at home.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin announced after the medics' arrival that President Georgi Parvanov had pardoned the five nurses and the Palestinian doctor, who was granted Bulgarian citizenship in June.
Kristiana Valcheva, one of the released nurses, told reporters at the airport that throughout their time in prison, they had kept alive the hope of freedom.
"We were afraid even to say aloud what we dreamed about," Valcheva said with tears in her eyes.
"Now I still can't believe that I am standing on Bulgarian soil. We were told the news at 4 o'clock in the morning and we left the jail at quarter to six to board the plane," she said. "Now I will try to get my previous life back."
A giant banner with the word "Innocent" emblazoned across it stood at the entrance to the airport terminal, where hundreds of Bulgarians had come to welcome the six.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose wife flew to Libya on Sunday along with Ferrero-Waldner, said that neither the European Union nor France paid money to Libya for the release. However, he said Qatar mediated the release and hinted the Gulf country may have had a broader role in resolving the crisis.
He also announced that he and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner would be visiting Libya on Wednesday in a bid to "help Libya rejoin the international community."
The French presidential palace said earlier that the deal included measures to improve the medical care of children with AIDS in Libya. It did not provide further details.
Sarkozy and his wife were also to visit Sofia in September, the office of the Bulgarian president said.
In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU would move to improve trade and political ties with Libya after the release.
"We hope to go on further (on) normalizing our relations with Libya. Our relations with Libya were to a large extent blocked by the non-settlement of this medics issue," Barroso told reporters.
He said the 27-nation bloc could move to include Libya in regional trade and aid ties with other Mediterranean countries.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul-Rahman Shalqam said Libya and the EU agreed to develop a "full partnership," with the Europeans promising a package of aid to develop Libyan hospitals and other infrastructure.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev praised the role of the EU, which Bulgaria joined in January.
"The return of the medics is a direct result of Bulgaria's membership in the European Union, of the solidarity which the EU showed Bulgaria," Stanishev said.
Parvanov, the president, said Bulgaria was "still sympathetic with the other tragedy — the one of the infected Libyan children and their families."
Ferrero-Waldner welcomed the Libyan government's decision to transfer the six to Bulgaria.
"For over eight years, we have never forgotten the suffering of the medical staff who have shown such dignity and fortitude during their long ordeal," Ferrero-Waldner said. "At the same time, my thoughts are also with the Benghazi children and their families, and I will continue to give my support to them all."
The five Bulgarian nurses, all mothers, traveled to Libya nearly a decade ago, attracted by promises of higher paying jobs. They were sent through a Bulgarian recruitment agency to al-Fath Children's Hospital in Libya's second largest city, Benghazi.
Some 60,000 Bulgarians were employed in the country in the 1980s, according to Libyan officials, before the U.N. imposed sanctions in 1993 and the links between the two nations weakened.
The nurses were arrested the year after their arrival, accused along with the Palestinian doctor of deliberately infecting children with HIV. More than 400 children at the hospital were infected, and 50 have since died.