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'No difficulty' finding buyers for Mistral warships, Hollande says

French President François Hollande pictured near the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during a visit to the naval base in Toulon on July 27.
French President François Hollande pictured near the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during a visit to the naval base in Toulon on July 27. AFP PHOTO/POOL/JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER
3 min

France will have "no difficulty" finding another buyer for two Mistral warships that were the subject of a cancelled deal with Russia, President François Hollande said Thursday, a day after his office said Russia was to be reimbursed for the order.

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"There will be no difficulty in finding buyers," Hollande told reporters in the Egyptian canal city of Ismailiya, where he attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the extension to the Suez Canal waterway.

Two of the 200-metre (650-foot) amphibious helicopter carriers were due for delivery to Russia by the end of this year in a deal worth an estimated €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion).

But Paris delayed, and eventually refused, to deliver the warships to Moscow over Russia's suspected backing of separatists in east Ukraine.

Hollande's office announced late on Wednesday that a deal had been reached with President Vladimir Putin to pay Russia compensation for cancelling the delivery of the two Mistrals. Russia will be "fully reimbursed" for the warships, the Elysée Palace said in a statement.

The Kremlin said compensation had been received and that it now considered the matter "completely resolved".

Within hours, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said "several" countries had expressed an interest in buying the ships, without offering details.

Experts, however, say France will have to cut the price to make the warships attractive enough to resell them.

France’s naval industry considers the Mistral one of its engineering jewels, with the navy dubbing the ship the “Swiss army knife”.

The Mistral is designed to carry more than a dozen assault helicopters, 60 armoured vehicles and a dozen tanks. It can also host up to 700 troops and has a full hospital on board.

France agreed in 2011 to build and sell the two advanced helicopter assault ships to Russia with the first one scheduled for delivery in October or November of last year and the second in 2015.

The fate of the two Mistral helicopter carriers weighed heavily on France-Russia ties for more than a year, following Paris's decision to delay the €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) deal as the West slapped sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin's alleged backing for separatist rebels in Ukraine.

Hollande said earlier this year that the conditions for the delivery were "still not right" and suggested that only a full implementation of a tenuous ceasefire in eastern Ukraine could make Paris reconsider.

Putin in April insisted that the French side reimburse Moscow for "all expenses" if the contract were to be cancelled.

France's training last summer of Russian sailors aboard the first Mistral ship in the French port city of Saint-Nazaire angered its Western partners, who said the delivery of the ships would undermine their joint efforts to isolate Russia and condemn its annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Russia and the West are locked in their worst stand-off since the Cold War over the Ukraine crisis, with the EU and US introducing increasingly damaging sanctions on Moscow.

US President Barack Obama urged Paris in June to "press the pause button" on the warship deal with Russia.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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