Sarkozy receives medal for helping to free HIV medics

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SOFIA, Oct 4 (Reuters) President Nicolas Sarkozy received Bulgaria's top honour for his role in the freeing of Bulgarian medics from a Libyan jail today at the start of a visit Paris hopes will promote French commercial interests here.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death on accusations of deliberately infecting 460 Libyan children with HIV were freed on July 24 after the European Union brokered a cooperation deal with Tripoli.

Sarkozy had sent his wife Cecilia to Libya as his envoy.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov presented Sarkozy with the ''Stara Planina'' medal, the highest national honour.

''The tragedy of the Bulgarian medics was not only a tragedy of the Bulgarian people, but also of Europe and France,'' Sarkozy said after the ceremony. ''Every European member should rely on the solidarity of the others.'' The Sarkozys role in the affair spurred controversy in France and irritated some EU officials who said the French president was claiming credit at the last minute after Brussels had spent three years patiently negotiating with Tripoli.

The medics' release opened the way for Sarkozy's visit to Tripoli which resulted in an arms deal and a memorandum of understanding for a nuclear energy deal. Sarkozy later denied any connection between the arms deal and the HIV case.

The medics, who will meet the French president later on Thursday, have always said they were innocent.

Sarkozy, who said in Hungary last month he wanted to build bridges with eastern Europe, is expected to offer the Balkan country cooperation in energy and shipbuilding and back French interests in two major deals.

Electricite de France and Suez's Electrabel , are bidding for a stake in a planned 5 billion euro nuclear power plant in Bulgaria.

French Armaris, controlled by state-owned shipyard DCN, is awaiting a 750 million euro contract with Sofia to build four naval corvettes. Bulgaria picked Armaris two years ago but has been been delaying the deal due to fiscal constraints.

REUTERS JK PM1745

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