Behind Sarkozy's Libya Coup

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Since taking office in mid-May, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been busy on the international stage. First, the French President gave an impressive performance during his first G8 summit; then he played a central role breaking the deadlock over how to structure the European Union. Since then, he has opened an ambitious new chapter in Franco-British cooperation alongside new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and has announced a radical revamping of the executive structure at Airbus. He's also managed to roll out a fistful of important domestic social and economic reforms. Before he embarks on his short August vacation, Sarkozy hopes to cap an active international debut by engineering the release of five Bulgarian and one Palestinian health workers, held in Libya for nearly eight years on charges they infected hundreds of children with HIV.

On Sunday, Sarkozy dispatched his wife Cécilia and a high-ranking Elysée official to Tripoli for the second time in 10 days to discuss the plight of the six, after a major diplomatic effort led by France was followed on July 17 by Libya's highest legal body commuting the death sentences in the case to life in prison. Since then, efforts to secure their release have advanced so quickly that Sarkozy has accepted an invitation by Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi to visit the country — probably as an additional stop, on Wednesday, to an Africa trip Sarkozy had set to begin upon Thursday. But Elysée officials have since confided it would be unseemly for Sarkozy to meet Ghaddafi before the six Bulgarian nations were freed, raising expectations that Madame Sarkozy and the French presidential jet still present in Libya were set to fly the medics out by day's end Tuesday. French officials refused to comment, but did say they felt confident "this painful affair may finally be over quite soon."

Independent observers and health experts have long said it was not the medical personnel, but unsanitary conditions and lax hospital procedures that caused 438 Benghazi children to be infected with HIV, and turned the fate of the accused health workers into a humanitarian cause celebre. But international efforts to secure their freedom had largely been frustrated until Sarkozy's election to the French presidency in May — curiously, he had made defending "the Bulgarian nurses" one of his campaign promises. Although no one in France is certain why Sarkozy took the plight of the Bulgarians so close to heart, his involvement has done wonders to unblock what long appeared to be a hopeless situation. Under the Sarko-led diplomatic push, Libya's Higher Judicial Council commuted the capital sentences to life in prison after families of victims agreed to accept around a million dollars each in compensation to be distributed by the Ghaddafi Foundation. Meanwhile, official sources say Sarkozy's team of negotiators have agreed to secure financing of long-term medical treatment for infected children still living, as well as major renovations to the Benghazi hospital. On Monday, Libya raised its price for freeing the medical staff to include the normalization of its relations with the European Union.

While freedom for the Bulgarians and Palestinian will bring a universal sigh of relief, some hackles have been raised in Brussels over what some consider Sarkozy's grandstanding in the affair. EU officials have recently groused at seeing their discreet, prolonged efforts to secure the Bulgarians' release snatched up by the new French President. Others have admitted shock at seeing Sarkozy's wife used down as a proxy to both negotiate and act as a photo-op stand-in with the prisoners following their release. French officials deny such cynicism is involved, and say all anyone wants is freedom for the Bulgarians. Still, some effort was made to ensure European officials were associated with Sarkozy's last diplomatic push: the French delegation that flew to Tripoli Sunday included EU External Relations Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner — who was also given the task of making most of the press statements.