Bulgaria buys Belgian frigates, French corvettes on hold
SOFIA, December 7 2007 - Bulgaria has approved the purchase of twosecond-hand Belgian frigates and a minesweeper, but deferred plans to buy fournew NATO-standard French corvettes for its navy, Defence Minister VesselinBliznakov said Friday. "The government decided Thursday to buy two more second-hand frigates and aminesweeper from the Belgian government for 54 million euros" (79 milliondollars), Bliznakov told journalists at a defence ministry news conference. The ships were in very good condition, fully equipped and fully compatiblewith all NATO standards, Bliznakov said. Sofia had bought a 20-year-old Belgian frigate in 2005, its first militaryship to comply with NATO standards. The first of the two new frigates -- and possibly all three ships -- wouldbe delivered next summer, he said. The minister insisted that the decision to buy more second-hand ships fromBelgium would not mean Sofia was dropping plans to buy brand-new corvettes. Nevertheless, a 700 to 780 million-euro deal to buy four new ships fromArmaris, a unit of French defence giant DCNS, had been deferred owing to alack of funding, he added. "We cannot finalise the deal and go ahead with the project, since we needto pay 20 percent of the purchase price up front and we don't have the money,"Bliznakov said. Under the terms of the deal, Bulgaria is committed to buying all fourcorvettes and no fewer, the minister explained. He did not specify when the deal with Armaris might be finalised, but saidthat there was no provision for money in the government's budget estimates forthe next three years. Sofia has earmarked 2.1 percent of its 2008 budget for defence. On a visit to the Bulgarian capital in October, French President NicolasSarkozy lobbied for the corvette deal to go ahead. Bliznakov also signed a memorandum of understanding Friday with US firmTextron Marine and Land to buy seven armoured vehicles for Bulgaria's400-strong troop contingent in Afghanistan. "The US company Textron was chosen to supply the Bulgarian land forces withseven new armoured vehicles for 14 million leva (7.0 million euros), scheduledfor delivery by the end of the year," Bliznakov said after signing the dealwith Textron vice president Don Flodin. The vehicles are designated for Bulgaria's troops in the NATO-ledInternational Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the ministersaid. Bulgaria currently has some 200 troops in the restive southern province ofKandahar and another 200-strong contingent guarding the airport in the capitalKabul. Bliznakov, who visited Afghanistan at the end of October, said Friday hewold propose sending 20 more soldiers to Kabul. Bulgaria also has 155 soldiers in Iraq, where it has lost 13 troops and sixcivilians since the US-led invasion in 2003.