France and EADS deny Libyan arms deal link with medics release

A French presidential aide and a top manager in the European aerospace giant EADS Saturday both denied any connection between a major arms deal with Libya and the release of six Bulgarian medics.

In Tripoli, the son of Libyan leader Moamar Kadhafi also denied any link.

News of the deal ignited a heated debate in France after President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, helped to broker the release of the six medics, sentenced to life in jail in Libya for infecting children with the AIDS virus.

But officials underlined that the deal for the sale of Milan anti-tank missiles and a radio communications system to Libya had been in the pipeline for months and denied any link between the two sets of negotiations.

The talks for the sale of missiles to Libya lasted 18 months and "in the 18 months, there was no direct intervention from the Elysee (presidential palace)," Marwan Lhoud, director of marketing and strategy at EADS, told Europe 1 radio on Saturday.

French presidential aide Claude Gueant also denied that the presidency had intervened in the arms deal.

Negotiations between EADS subsidiary MBDA and the Libyan authorities "had been going on for a long time and we never intervened to speed up their conclusion," Gueant told the newspaper Le Figaro.

Sarkozy, who travelled to Tripoli to sign the nuclear and military cooperation agreement the day after the medics' release, has denied suggestions of a trade-off, presenting the case as a French and European diplomatic coup.

Gueant, secretary-general at the Elysee presidential palace, also said the possibility of a deal in exchange for Libya's release of the Bulgarian medics was "a subject that never came up in our discussions."

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He added that he was unaware that the arms negotiations were taking place in Libya at the same time: "I learned only after I travelled to Tripoli that an MBDA mission had been staying in the Libyan capital for a month," he said.

Meanwhile, Lhoud insisted that the sale took place with the usual support from the government channels involved in such deals.

"The contract was absolutely not on the agenda of President Sarkozy's visit to Libya," he said.

"The fate of the medics was much too important to be dependent on an arms contract."

However, he added: "A presidential visit always creates a favourable climate" for the conclusion of a contract.

Defence Minister Herve Morin on Friday confirmed that a letter of intent had been signed for the arms sale, also stating that: "On arms contracts, the finalisation, the last touch, generally comes via a political act, a visit from the president, or prime minister."

But Morin said the deal, the first since an embargo was lifted on Tripoli in 2004, had already been approved in principle by the government of Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac in February.

The opposition Socialist Party has demanded a parliamentary enquiry to decide if France offered the contracts to Libya as a quid pro quo for the medics' freedom.

Kadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, has said unblocking the medics' case paved the way for the weapons contracts.

On Saturday, however, he stressed that the "signature of the accord between Libya and France is not a quid pro quo in exchange for the freeing of the nurses."

Islam, whose Kadhafi Foundation was instrumental in the liberation of the medics, corroborated claims that the arms talks dated back 18 months and said it would be "unacceptable for such a humanitarian affair to be the object of a swap."

He added that Sarkozy's opponents were acting "out of jealousy over his success" in the mediation to free the medics.

Sarkozy's party has insisted it has nothing to hide.

National Assembly Speaker Bernard Accoyer, a member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, said he supported calls for an enquiry and was confident it would ease the opposition's concerns.

And the presidency issued a statement, hours after Sarkozy left for a lakeside summer vacation in New Hampshire, saying he would welcome an "enquiry into recent developments in the relations between France and Libya."

The Libyan purchases were agreed with subsidiaries of EADS, which is controlled by French and German public and private interests, and of Britain's BAE Systems. France holds the largest public stake in EADS, with 15 percent.

The French-designed Milan anti-tank missile is a portable medium-range weapon that has been sold to more than 40 countries since the 1970s.