Saharan Shakedown
Moammar Gaddafi acting like Moammar Gaddafi

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

EUROPEAN LEADERS claimed an important step toward bettering Libya's still-shaky relations with the West. But the North African dictatorship deserves no plaudits for its release last week of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, all locked up for the past eight years on flimsy charges. Nor should European negotiators take pride in an episode that, by all indications, is a clear-cut case of international extortion.

Don't take our word for it. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gaddafi, told Newsweek: "It is blackmail. . . . Yeah, it's an immoral game, but they set the rules of the game, the Europeans, and now they are paying the price." That price, according to Mr. Qadhafi, includes a nuclear power deal from France, tens of millions of dollars in debt write-offs from Bulgaria and hundreds of millions in health and development aid of murky provenance. Also, since Libya released the prisoners and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jetted in and out of Libya with promises of further cooperation, a European defense firm announced a new contract to sell arms to Tripoli. With controversy swirling, Mr. Sarkozy had to take a break from his vacation in New Hampshire over the weekend to deny any link between the arms deal and the release of the medical workers.

The former prisoners are almost certainly innocent; they should have been released long ago, but no ransom should have been paid. Libyan officials accused the medical workers of intentionally infecting hundreds of children in the coastal town of Benghazi with HIV -- an improbable plot supposedly hatched by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. European AIDS experts subsequently concluded that the infections predated the arrival of the nurses, and there is broad agreement that the culprit probably was poor hospital hygiene. Nevertheless, convictions and death sentences came down and were upheld -- until, that is, the Libyan supreme court commuted the death sentences last month and Tripoli got its payoff.

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