French President Nicolas Sarkozy heads Wednesday to Tripoli for strategic talks with Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, ahead of his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as head of state.

Sarkozy announced he would make the "political trip" to Tripoli after French efforts contributed to the release of six foreign medics held in Libya since 1999 on charges of having infected children with AIDS.

Observers saw Sarkozy's determination to see the medics released -- his wife Cecilia flew to Tripoli to help clinch a deal, which was made a pre-condition to his visit -- as evidence he wants to boost ties with Libya.

Analysts believe the oil- and gas-rich north African country could become a key trading partner for France.

"Obviously I hope that we will sign cooperation accords with Libya," Sarkozy told a press conference hours after the medics' release. "I do not see why France would be the only country not to sign this kind of accord."

According to a Libyan government official, new deals could cover the areas of security, energy, education, immigration, health and scientific research.

Sarkozy was also expected to defend his call for the creation of a new Mediterranean union, and to enlist further help from Kadhafi in stemming illegal migration towards southern Europe.

The French leader, who was expected to leave for Tripoli after the weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux.

Franco-Libyan relations have been steadily improving since a 2004 accord on a Libyan compensation deal for the victims of a French DC-10 airliner bombing over Niger, which killed 170 people including 54 French in 1989.

The upturn paved the way for a visit by Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac in November 2004, after which the two countries resumed defence cooperation in February 2005, and struck an accord on civilian nuclear research in March 2006.

Since then French aerospace manufacturer Dassault has struck an agreement to service 12 French-bought Mirage F1 jets -- although it denies persistent rumours of negotiations on a Libyan purchase of its Rafale fighter.

French exports to the country jumped 43.4 percent in 2006 to reach 433.6 million euros (600 million dollars) -- although it imported 1.9 billion euros worth of goods from Libya over the same period, almost all oil.

With the medics freed, "we can expect Mr. Sarkozy to promote, like elsewhere in the region, the realistic interests of French companies," said Francois Burgat, a Libya specialist from the IRENAM research institute.

But for Burgat, Paris remains cautious towards Libya's Africa policy, in particular its role in the Darfur conflict in Sudan and its repercussions in neighbouring Chad.

On Thursday and Friday, Sarkozy heads to the former French colonies of Senegal and Gabon, two countries described by Paris as "extremely privileged French partners on the African continent" and where France continues to operate military bases.

In Senegal -- heralded as a beacon of stable democracy in west Africa, but still plagued by high poverty -- Sarkozy plans to defend a new "partnership" between France and Africa during a dinner with President Abdoulaye Wade.

For his first trip to the country as president, Sarkozy is accompanied by Rama Yade, the Senegalese-born junior minister for human rights and the first black woman to be appointed to a French government.

On Friday, Sarkozy heads to the oil-rich state of Gabon, where he is due to visit a forestry complex ahead of talks with Africa's longest-serving leader, President Omar Bongo Ondimba.