TRIPOLI, Libya - French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to boost relations with long-isolated Libya as he met with the oil-rich country's leader Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday as a reward for releasing six Bulgarian medical workers.
Libya is hoping for increased cooperation with Europe and the United States after it freed the six, who had been held for more than eight years on charges they infected children with AIDS.
The medics had twice been sentenced to death for allegedly infecting some 426 children in the coastal city of Benghazi in the late 1990s — charges that were widely denounced abroad as false. Libya commuted their sentences to life in prison and allowed them to fly to Bulgaria on Tuesday, where they received a presidential pardon.
During Sarkozy's visit, France and Libya signed wide-ranging cooperation agreements in areas including defense, health, the fight against terrorism and civilian nuclear power.
Under a deal sealed by the medics' release, the European Union agreed to a package of aid for Libya and the prospect of increased trade ties. The Europeans also said they would encourage contributions to a Libyan fund set up to compensate families of the children infected with the HIV virus.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she hoped to travel to Libya soon. "I know that American companies are very interested in working in Libya," Rice also said.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said his country might write off the $54 million debt owed to it by Libya — although he underlined that it was a humanitarian gesture that should not be seen as "paying ransom, or admitting (the medics') guilt."
Sarkozy's visit had been contingent on the release of the medics, whose freedom he had made a foreign policy priority since taking office in May.
The EU has been negotiating with Tripoli for months, trying to find a resolution to the crisis. French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy made two trips to Libya this month to push for the medics' release; on Tuesday, she scored the coup of flying them home to Bulgaria aboard a French presidential plane.
France and Libya "affirm their desire to give new momentum to bilateral relations, and to build a strategic partnership between the two countries," the leaders said in a joint statement.
The countries agreed to boost cooperation on areas including fighting terrorism, research, education, the economy and migration, the statement said. They urged stability in Sudan and Chad and "underlined the need to work together to resolve armed conflicts on the African continent."
One agreement touched on defense cooperation, and in another memo, leaders pledged to work together on "peaceful applications for nuclear energy," the statement said. The issue is sensitive, and French anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucleaire accused Sarkozy of handing over nuclear technology to the Libyans in exchange for the nurses.
Bulgaria's pardon of the medical workers brought an angry denunciation from the Libyan organization representing the children's families.
"We deeply condemn and are deeply disappointed at the absurdity and disrespect shown by the Bulgarian presidential pardon," the association said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press. It called on Interpol to have police arrest the medics again in Bulgaria, "so that they can spend the rest of their sentences in prison."
But the association avoided any mention of Gadhafi's decision to allow the medics to return to Bulgaria.
The medical workers denied infecting the children and said their confessions were extracted under torture. During their trials, international experts testified that the infections were caused by unclean conditions at the hospitals where they were treated.
Three medics, meanwhile, said at a news conference in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia that they would testify against the Libyan officers alleged to have tortured them.
"We can forgive, but we cannot forget what has happened to us," said Nasya Nenova, one of the nurses.
Nenova, Kristiana Valcheva and Ashraf al Hazouz said they were ready to testify against 11 Libyan police officers in a Bulgarian probe of the alleged torture.
If convicted, the accused will face up to 10 years in prison.
The Libyans will be investigated for allegedly using coercion, torture and threats to extract the false confessions from the medics, prosecutor Nikolai Kokinov said.
Libyan officials contend that with the medics' release, the country's slate with the outside world is clean.
In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, and agreed to pay restitution to the victims. Gadhafi also said he was dismantling his nuclear weapons program, bringing a major breakthrough in U.S.-Libyan ties. The steps brought a lifting of U.S. and European sanctions.
Since then, international investment has increased in Libya's oil sector — its only considerable industry, providing most of its gross domestic product of nearly $75 billion.
Sarkozy's trip follows a visit in May by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also worked toward the medics' release.
In July, President Bush nominated an ambassador to Tripoli, where the U.S. reopened its embassy in May 2006.
But Libya's failure so far to pay the last portion of the $270 million it promised to families of the Lockerbie victims could hold up a greater warming of ties with the U.S. Some senators are moving to block upgrading of the embassy until all reparations are paid.
While the EU appears ready to increase ties to some extent with Libya, an even closer relationship depends on political reforms that many doubt Gadhafi is ready to carry out.