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France agrees warship sale to Russia; U.S. concerned

MYT 3:00:19 AM

PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Monday it agreed to sell a Mistral class warship to Russia, raising U.S. concerns about Moscow's ability to threaten Georgia and other Eastern European allies.

Russia wanted to buy the 21,300-tonne helicopter carrier from France to modernise hardware that was exposed as outdated during its five-day war against Georgia in 2008.

"France has agreed to sell a (Mistral) ship to Russia," Jacques de Lajugie, director of international development at the Defence Ministry, told reporters.

France belongs to the NATO military alliance and its willingness to sell Russia advanced technology that could be used in a confrontation with its forces or against its allies has caused concern among other NATO members.

The announcement came just ahead of a visit to Paris by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who raised the issue with his French counterpart, Herve Morin.

"Our friends and allies in Eastern Europe are clearly nervous about it, especially Georgia. And with good reason," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

"They fear these new warships would give Russia additional capabilities to once again threaten Georgia from the Black Sea."

"It is an issue for us and Secretary Gates made that clear to Minister Morin, but it was but one discussion point over a lengthy, productive and amicable working lunch," he added.

Several of Russia's neighbours also have expressed worries. Lithuania wrote to France in November asking for clarification of the situation and details of the ship's ammunition.

A senior U.S. official travelling with Gates said Washington believed the ship "clearly can be used as a warship for helicopter operations".

The Mistral, marketed by French naval concern DCNS and estimated by analysts to cost between 300 million and 500 million euros ($410-$683 million), is an amphibious assault ship able to carry helicopters, troops, armoured vehicles and tanks thousands of miles.

During the war with Georgia, launched to repel Tbilisi's attempt to retake the rebel province of South Ossetia, Russia tried to control the Black Sea coast where NATO warships appeared.

Russia has said it could have moved more swiftly in the Black Sea if a Mistral-type ship had been in its fleet.

Despite a peace deal mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, tensions remain high in Georgia.

The region is viewed by the West as a vital energy transit route from the Caspian to Europe.

(Writing by Anna Willard; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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