Russia throws open warship buy to tender: minister
Russia on Friday confirmed that it had thrown open its planned purchase of a helicopter carrier to an international tender, ending France's status as the exclusive bidder.
"We have announced an international tender for the construction of the helicopter carrier," Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Russia has been negotiating with France for months to buy the Mistral-class ships, in its first ever purchase of military hardware from a NATO member state. But talks have been mired by disputes over technology transfer.
Serdyukov said that the tender, due to take place in September, would be for two ships and the producer of the Mistral -- France's STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire -- would be allowed to bid.
But the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it was untroubled by the news.
"France remains confident and sees no reason to worry," a senior Sarkozy aide told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A day earlier, following reports of a Russian change of heart, the Elysee had said "negotiations are going ahead normally in an excellent context".
While still upbeat, the French language is now more cautious than it was last month, when Sarkozy said: "We're still negotiating the contract, but the decision to go ahead is certain."
In June, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told AFP the deal would only go-ahead if France agreed to transfer the advanced military technology which French versions of the vessel are equipped with.
The deal is reportedly worth around 600 million euros (765 million dollars) and would secure jobs in French yards, but some of France's NATO allies have expressed concern about arming Russia with modern Western weaponry.
The throwing open of the tender comes after the umbrella organisation of public Russian shipbuilders complained that handing the contract to France without a tender could be illegal.
The board of United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) is headed by Putin's right-hand man, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.
"Statements by the ministry of defence that the OSK was not even able to build a Mistral -- which is basically a rebuilt passenger ship -- hit the corporation's work with export customers who started to look at it with scepticism," a corporation source told the Kommersant daily on Thursday.
© 2010 AFP