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Libya's Odd Bargain

Prepared by: Lee Hudson Teslik
July 25, 2007

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The sudden resolution of an eight-year dispute over Libya’s detainment of six foreign medics proved every bit as bizarre as the episode itself. Libya had accused the medics, five of them Bulgarian nurses, the sixth a Palestinian doctor, of intentionally infecting (BBC) hundreds of Libyan children with HIV. The allegations and the Libyan court proceedings met with widespread criticism from foreign governments and medical experts, but a succession of Libyan courts, most recently the Supreme Court, affirmed death sentences (Reuters) for the medics. But soon after the latest ruling, Libya commuted the sentences to life imprisonment and then, on July 24, extradited the medics (AP) to their home countries, explaining that a $460 million grant to the victims’ families squared the deal with Islamic law. The Financial Times, citing European diplomats, reported that the funds in fact came from none other than Libya’s own government.

The immediate aftermath of the extraditions implied other behind-the-scenes dealings. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who took an active interest in the case of the imprisoned medics—going so far as to dispatch his wife, Cecilia, to Bulgaria and Libya, apparently to negotiate (Dar al-Hayat) with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi—announced after the deal’s completion that France will seek to broaden its ties with Libya (Reuters). Sarkozy said he would help Libya normalize its relations with the world and return to the “concert of nations” after three decades as a pariah. TIME says “no one in France is certain why Sarkozy took the plight of the Bulgarians so close to heart,” but remarks that the new president’s active involvement “has done wonders to unblock what long appeared to be a hopeless situation.”

Actually, Sarkozy’s motivations may not be quite so foggy. Though energy was not explicitly cited as a driving factor behind Sarkozy’s efforts, analysts say France may be eyeing Libya as a critical new trading partner (Independent SA). European countries, including France, Great Britain, and Italy, are increasingly cozying up to Qaddafi, who has moved to liberalize Libya’s oil-and-gas-rich economy since the United States in 2004 lifted decades-old sanctions. This scramble came into focus earlier this year when Britain’s energy giant BP signed a $900 million exploratory agreement (MarketWatch) with Qaddafi that could eventually lead to over $25 billion of British investment. Qaddafi now says he intends to nearly double Libya’s oil production by 2012, potentially catapulting the country into the world’s top ten oil producers ahead of Venezuela, Iraq, and Nigeria.

Libya also holds enormous natural gas reserves, of increasing importance to European nations as they find themselves frustrated dealing with Russia, a primary natural gas source for the European Union. Russia has shown itself willing to squeeze adversaries by tightening the gas spigot (WashPost). EU-Russian relations have become strained in recent months (IHT), and officials now openly broach the possibility of Libya picking up the slack (Independent UK) should Europe face an energy squeeze from Moscow.

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