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France signs contested Russia warship deal

France said Tuesday it had signed a deal to sell four Mistral warships to Moscow, including two to be built in Russia, in a move bitterly opposed by ex-Soviet Baltic states.

The deal will be the first sale to Russia of such technology by a NATO country and France’s NATO allies — in particular Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have expressed concern about arming Russia with modern Western weaponry.

Leaked diplomatic cables showed that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also raised Washington’s concerns while on a visit to Paris last year.

The deal was announced while President Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting the STX naval shipyards in the western French port of Saint-Nazaire where the vessels will be built.

“The governments of the two countries agree to give their full support to the construction of two (warships) in France and two in Russia,” said a joint French-Russian statement released by the French presidency.

A previous deal announced late last month concerned the construction of two Mistrals in Saint-Nazaire and mentioned the possibility of building two more.

The deal unveiled Tuesday did not mention how much technology France would transfer to the Russians to enable them to build the ships, nor did it mention how much the ships were being sold for.

France has been negotiating with Russia since 2009 on the deal to sell Moscow the Mistral, which usually costs around 500 million euros (680 million dollars).

A Mistral-class ship can carry up to 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 13 battle tanks, around 100 other vehicles and a 450-strong force. It has facilities for a full command staff and is equipped with a 69-bed hospital.

The Russian army has said such a ship would have helped it win its August 2008 war with ex-Soviet neighbour Georgia within hours rather than days.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — states ruled by Moscow until 1991 — have repeatedly criticised France’s plans since Paris began negotiating the warship sale.

The Kremlin only withdrew its troops from their territory in 1994, three years after they won independence when the communist bloc collapsed.

The three states, with a combined population of 6.8 million, still have rocky relations with giant Russia, notably since they joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said last month he was upset that France had ignored the concerns of its regional NATO allies, but underlined he did not believe the sale would cause major security problems in the Baltic Sea.

Looking at the situation from a realistic viewpoint, one has to admit that French economic interests — in this case, selling the ships — would have no dramatic effects either on the balance of forces in the region or NATO strategy in the Baltic states,” he said.