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Europe

EU Lifts Arms Ban Against Libya

The European Union agreed Monday to lift an 18-year-old arms embargo on Libya, welcoming the country's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction and movement towards "responsible government."

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Italian PM Berlusconi has already forged closer ties with Gadhafi

But EU foreign ministers also voiced continued concern over a death sentence hanging over five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian medic accused by Libyan authorities of infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus.

"Libya is among the first countries to dismantle voluntarily its weapons of mass destruction programs under international supervision through a transparent and cooperative process," they said. But at the same time they "invited Libya to respond positively to the EU's policy of engagement... In this light, it insisted that Libya resolves remaining EU concerns, notably the case of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical workers."

Rome has for several months been pressing its EU counterparts to lift the arms embargo imposed on Libya in 1986, in order to be able to deliver equipment to Tripoli to beef up its frontiers. Sanctions were imposed on Libya because of its role in state-sponsored terrorism, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

They were partially eased last year, paving the way for Tripoli to compensate victims' families. The EU eased sanctions against Tripoli in 1999 but maintained a series of restrictive measures on key products, notably military equipment, which Libya has sought in order to keep a better check on its borders. Rome considers Libya a major hub for clandestine migrants from African countries and has already signed cooperation agreements to help the Libyan authorities combat the problem.

"Cooperation with Libya on migration is essential and urgent," said the EU ministers in a statement after their Luxembourg talks. The EU move comes amid a rapid loosening of sanctions and a thaw in relations since last year, when Tripoli took responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay 2.7 billion dollars in compensation.

Ditching WMDs

The rapprochement then gathered steam with Libya's surprise decision in December to renounce and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction under US, British and international supervision. Last month US President George W. Bush removed most economic sanctions on Libya, clearing the way for huge compensation payments to the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

The EU celebrated its restored ties with Libya notably when Moammar Gadhafi visited Brussels in April, his first trip to Western Europe in 15 years.

The Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death in May by a Libyan court after a four-year trial which ended with their conviction on charges of knowingly injecting children with tainted blood products. The EU -- which Bulgaria is hoping to join in 2007 -- has protested the sentences and accused the Libyan authorities of violating the rights of the accused.

"We are very concerned about the situation (of) the Bulgarian citizens," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. But overall the EU tone Monday was positive, with a ministerial statement including an expression of "deep sympathy with those infected with HIV" in the tainted blood tragedy.

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