France defends warship sale to Russia, despite Georgian fear

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President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday defended France's plans to sell warships to Russia in talks with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, the Elysee palace said.

Sarkozy explained that "if Russia is expected to behave like a partner in every domain, including in the area of security and defence, then it must be treated like a partner in every domain," a French presidential aide said.

Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 that ended with a French-brokered truce, sees the sale of the Mistral-class assault ships to Moscow as a threat to its security.

But Sarkozy told Saakashvili, who is on a visit to Paris, that the sale of up to four vessels was "a political choice" for France, the aide said.

Saakashvili's arch-foe, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is due in Paris on Thursday and is expected to meet with Sarkozy on Friday.

Georgia is alarmed by France's plan to sell up to four warships to Russia capable of carrying 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force, the first sale of advanced military technology to Moscow by a NATO country.

But Paris has repeatedly brushed aside worries from Georgia, the United States and the Baltics.

Russia's military chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said in Moscow earlier that the vessel could be used to patrol waters near Pacific islands that are the subject of a long-running dispute with Japan.

Saakashivili is also seeking French support for Georgia's bid for closer ties with the European Union and there will also be talks on economic cooperation.

Sarkozy told him Tuesday that France was "one of the main supporters of Georgia" within the EU and was pushing for talks on closer ties between the EU and Georgia to begin in the coming months.

© 2010 AFP

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