Monday, June 11, 2007

Bush in Bulgaria

Yahoo Asia News!

SOFIA (AFP) - US President George W. Bush, on the last leg of his European tour, is set for talks Monday with Bulgarian leaders about the proposed expansion of the US anti-missile defence shield in Europe.

Bush arrived in Sofia Sunday evening with his wife Laura on his first visit to the Balkan state.

After the official welcoming ceremony by national guards in downtown Sofia early Monday, Bush was scheduled to hold separate talks with his Bulgarian counterpart Georgy Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev. A press conference is expected around 10:30 am (0730 GMT).

A major topic on the US-Bulgarian agenda is expected to be the plans for extending parts of the US missile defence shield into the Czech Republic and Poland.

The plans also prompted calls from NATO members Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey to be included under its umbrella as according to the current design they are either partly or fully outside its range.

Moscow however has loudly voiced its opposition as it suspects that the project is aimed at its own territory -- despite US denials.

Bush's talks will also focus on the status of the conflict-torn Serbian province of Kosovo for which the US leader called for independence during a visit to Albania on Sunday.

Bulgarian leaders were also largely expected to seek US support on the case of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, jailed in Libya for over eight years in a high-profile hospital AIDS epidemics case and currently appealing their death sentences.

The six foreigners are regarded by both the US and the European Union as scapegoats for the infection with AIDS of over 400 Libyan children at a hospital in the northeastern town of Benghazi, which international health experts have blamed on poor hygiene.

"Mr Bush, help Libya! This could save our nurses," the front page of Bulgaria's widest circulation daily newspaper, Trud, read Monday.

Other topics of discussion will be Bulgaria's involvement in the US-led coalition force in Iraq and the NATO ISAF contingent in Afghanistan.

Bulgaria currently has a 155-strong peacekeeping contingent in Iraq and is also planning to increase to 400 troops its contingent in Afghanistan.

Since joining the multinational force in Iraq, the small Balkan state has lost 13 soldiers and six civilians, including a soldier shot by US "friendly" fire.

Bush will also discuss in Sofia the remaining technical details for the deployment of US soldiers at joint military facilities in Bulgaria, following a deal signed last April.

Unprecedented security measures accompanied the first visit to Bulgaria by a US president since 1999.

On Monday morning over 3,500 police officers were deployed on the streets of the capital, which was sparsely decorated with star-spangled banners.

"Touchdown! Bush touched down," "Bush came. Sofia froze," and "Second Sunday because of Bush," read the headlines on Bulgarian newspapers' front pages.

The major boulevard leading downtown from the airport was completely closed to traffic for an hour Sunday evening, while pedestrians crowded at the sidewalks to watch the presidential motorcade.

Following a lunch reception at the National historical museum he was to take part in a roundtable at the American university in Sofia and depart for Washington around 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).

Bulgaria is the final stop on the European tour that also took the US president to the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Albania in addition to the G8 summit in Germany.

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