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French Minister Expects Deal On Warship Sale To Russia

France's Bernard Kouchner (left) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on October 1
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Russia may buy a French assault ship, a move that would be greeted with unease by Georgia and the United States.

An EU-commissioned report into last year's Georgia war on September 30 highlighted the serious threat of renewed conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi.

The comments by Kouchner are the first indication that France may be willing to sanction the sale of a Mistral-class helicopter-carrier to Russia after Moscow's top brass said it would fill a major gap in its military capability.

"This political agreement should be reached, I think, but it's not up to me to decide...concerning this wonderful warship," Kouchner told Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio station on October 1 ahead of talks in Moscow.

Kouchner did not say what political negotiations must still take place, but the final decision would have to be sanctioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the deal was signed off by senior officials.

As a NATO member, France may face pressure from the United States not to sell Russia advanced technology that could be used in a confrontation with its forces or against its allies, such as Georgia.

The Mistral-class ships can be used in amphibious assaults and can carry tanks, other armored vehicles and personnel. It is being marketed by French naval concern DCNS and analysts estimate the cost at about 300 million euros each.

The purchase of a Mistral-class ship would mark Russia's biggest arms purchase from abroad.

If Russia had had this kind of ship in its fleet, it could have moved more swiftly in the Black Sea during last year's war with Georgia, Moscow's naval commander Vladimir Vysotsky told Russian news agencies earlier this month.

Instead of taking 26 hours to perform certain unnamed tasks, it would have taken the Russian Black Sea fleet 40 minutes with such a warship, Vysotsky said.

During the war with Georgia, 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.

Despite a peace deal mediated by the French president, tensions remain high in Georgia. The region is viewed by the West as a key energy transit route from the Caspian to Europe.