France has agreed to sell 200 Mirage F-1 advanced fighter aircraft to Egypt and to supply technical assistance to build up the Egyptian defense system, French government spokesman said today.
The announcement that the multi-billion-dollar deal has suddenly been concluded after nearly two years of negotiation came one day after the French government touched off international suspected Palestinian terrorist leader Abu Daoud.
Final terms of the deal apparently were discussed with Egypt by French Defense Minister Yvon Bourges, who returned two days ago from a visit to Cairo and reported to the French Caninet today.
The size of the new sale - each plane costs more than $8 million - could further prejudice France's strained relations with Israel, which is already furious with the French for releasing Abu Daoud.
The manner in which France made the sale public - there was no formal announcement but rather a disclosure by unnamed government spokesmen - and its timing raised questions.
In the past, Washington Post correspondent Jim Hoagland reported, opposition politicians have accused President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's government of orchestrating announcements of major sales of Frech goods to oil-producing countries to justify Giscard's foreign policies and to hold out hopes of future French economic gains that quietly melt away in time.
Highly publicized, wide-ranging sales contracts with Iraq, Iran and Libya have later turned out to the substantially smaller than the French government had originally suggested.
The Mirage F-1 is the most modern warplane in the French arsenal and has a top speed of more than twice the speed of sound.
The plan outlined today provides for eventual production of Mirages for various Arab countries by an Egyptian-based consortium backed by capital from oil-producing countries. Spokesmen gave no indication of restrictions on the countries to which Egypt could sell the planes.
A Paris-based international aviation executive who deals in combat aircraft said the French-Egyptian talks had encountered very recent difficulties according to the Associated Press, and said the agreement "must have been made in the last couple of days. Thus you could see how embarrassed the French were by the Abu Daoud affair."
The aircraft depending on how it is modified, can be used for attack missions. But a Western diplomat familiar with the Middle East situation said he doubted that acquisition of the Mirages would significantly alter the strategic balance between the Arabs and Israel. The F-1 has already been ordered by Iraq and Morocco.
Plans call for the first few models to be delivered to Egypt ready built, the French spokesmen said, with the rest of the planes to be assembled under license in Egypt starting in late 1979 or early 1980.
Egypt hopes to create a major Middle East arms industry by combining its technological capability and skilled manpower with the immense financial resources of the oil-rich Arab states. It has set up the Arab Organization for Industrialization with initial capital of $4 billion from Saudi Arabia, Oatar and the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait, Libya and Iraw have refused to participate because of the consortium's closeness to the West.
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In Cairo this week, Bourges said, "France will participate directly with the Arab authority for military industrialization in setting up an armaments industry in Egypt, either by providing factory equipment or extending technical assistance and training the necessary personnel."
Today's repport did not make clear whether the Mirages to be manufactured in France and delivered to Egypt would be part of an estimated several dozen that Saudi Arabia agreed two years ago to buy for Egypt or whether they represent an entirely new order for France's lagging aerospace industry.