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France cancels sale of warships to Russia, pays Moscow back

France cancels sale of warships to Russia, pays Moscow back
In this 2014 photo, the Vladivostok warship, the first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers ordered by Russia, docks on the port of Saint-Nazaire, western France. (David Vincent / Associated Press)
France is looking for a buyer for two high-tech Mistral warships worth a reported $1.3 billion after confirming Thursday that it had canceled its controversial deal to deliver the vessels to Russia.
Paris has reimbursed Moscow for the two helicopter carriers, which the French government decided not to deliver because of Russia's annexation of Crimea last year. Although angry Russian officials had threatened to sue for breach of contract, a senior French official said that negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President François Hollande resolved the issue Wednesday.
"There is no further dispute on the matter," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio.
Although he gave no firm figures, saying the French Parliament would be informed when it reconvened after the summer vacation, Le Drian said that France was paying back less than the reported $1.3-billion full cost of the two Mistrals as the ships were not finished.
"It was the best agreement possible," Le Drian said, adding that he did not believe it would be hard for France to find another buyer for the "well-constructed" vessels.
A statement from Putin's office at the Kremlin confirmed the French reports.
"Moscow considers the Mistral issue completely resolved," Russian media reported.
Russian defense officials had threatened to sue France for breach of contract, but Moscow declared that it had not sought penalties.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated the sale of the warships to Russia in 2011 in the face of bitter opposition from the Baltic nations and France's NATO allies, including the United States.
But after Moscow's annexation of Crimea, Hollande, Sarkozy's successor, announced that the scheduled delivery last fall of the first ship, the Vladivostok, would be delayed until a cease-fire in Ukraine was "entirely respected" by Moscow.
A crew of around 400 Russian sailors took the Vladivostok out for sea trials late last year, but Moscow announced last month that the group had been "disbanded."
Russian naval experts will travel to the French Atlantic port of Saint Nazaire, where the ships are docked, in September to remove equipment that the Russian military had installed on the Vladivostok.
The cancellation of the deal brought criticism from opponents of Hollande's Socialist government.
"Hollande has given in, and France has obeyed the U.S.A. day of mourning for what remains of our national independence," former minister Thierry Mariani of Sarkozy's opposition center-right party wrote on Twitter.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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