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France has pledged to build closer political and scientific ties with Libya, one day after the six Bulgarian healthcare workers held in the North African nation returned home (24 July).

The deal includes cooperation on a new nuclear reactor to be used to produce drinking water through desalination.

Areva, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of nuclear reactors, will be responsible for the project, but the company says it is too early to announce any details of the project.

"We are waiting for a political agreement between France and Libya to pave the way for new political discussions between the two countries. These are supposed to last for a period of time; this could be months or it could be years," Charles Hufnagel, a spokesman for Areva, told SciDev.Net.

"We have met a few people from Libya, which could be seen as a preliminary meeting, a few weeks ago," he added. But he quickly highlighted that talks about a deal or a contract are very premature at this stage.

Last week (25 July), French president Nicholas Sarkozy visited Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Libyan president, to secure closer deals with the oil and gas rich country.

"Nuclear power is the energy of the future," Sarkozy told reporters at a press conference. "If we don't give the energy of the future to the countries of the southern Mediterranean, how will they develop themselves?"

But the international community has been divided over the issue. German minister of state for foreign affairs, Gernot Erler, called the deal a "political problem", according to the Le Monde newspaper.

"Germany had already made proposals to Libya on sustainable energy resources," he added.

In 2003, Libya announced that it had abandoned a programme to develop nuclear weapons, paving the way for the country to emerge from more than two decades of political isolation imposed by the United States.

A project for Areva to explore uranium deposits in Libya is also under discussion.

The memorandum signed last Wednesday (25 July) also covered aspects such as cooperation on scientific research and higher education and a military-industrial partnership

Libyan prime minister al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi told a press conference that France had pledged to equip Benghazi hospital — the hospital at the centre of the Bulgarian trial — and provide it with trained personnel for five years. He said France had also agreed to train 50 Libyan doctors.