Dassault Rafale jets fly next to church in Croatia

Two Dassault Rafale fighter jets fly next to a church after a signing ceremony between French President Emmanuel Macron and Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in Zagreb, Croatia, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Croatia's government has approved the purchase of 12 used Rafale fighter jets from France worth about 1 billion euros to replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era aircraft and strengthen its air force amid lingering tensions in the Balkans. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatia on Thursday signed a deal to buy 12 Rafale fighter jets from France worth nearly 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) that officials said will considerably strengthen its air force amid lingering tensions in the Balkans.

The contract for the used combat aircraft was signed during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Croatia. It was the first visit by France’s head of state to Croatia since it split from the former Yugoslav federation in the 1991-95 war.

“The purchase of the planes strategically is what we see as a game changer for Croatia,” Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said at a joint press conference with Macron after the signing ceremony.

“This will not only give us the ability to avert those who have any aspirations toward our territory but also to become the so-called exporters of security … of stability in southeastern Europe,” he said.

Macron said the aircraft deal will strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries and contribute to European defense.

Two Rafales made a low pass over the Croatian capital after the signing ceremony.

The selection of the French aircraft, announced in May, followed a long bidding process that was plagued by delays. Other offers had included new F-16s from the United States, new JAS-39 Gripen planes from Sweden, and used F-16s from Israel.

Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, which makes the fighter jets, said they "will give the Croatian Air Force complete satisfaction, while actively contributing to the exercise of Croatia’s national sovereignty.”

Croatian officials said earlier that the purchase is worth 999 million euros and will involve 10 single-seater and two 2-seater F3R Rafale twin-engine aircraft. The first six Rafales are scheduled to be delivered in 2024, with the rest due the following year.

The French jets will replace a few still operational Soviet-era MiG-21s — first developed in the 1950s. Most of the MiGs were originally snatched from the Yugoslav military which tried to stop Croatia’s secession from the former Serb-dominated federation.

Croatia, which is a member of NATO and the European Union, is in a mini arms race with neighboring Russian ally Serbia, which has recently received six used MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia and four more of the type from Belarus.

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